A decree by Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine, from 15th of May this year expanded the existing sanctions adopted over the annexation of Crimea and the support of separatists in eastern Ukraine. The new restrictions targeted the email service Mail.ru, Russian social networks Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, and the search engine company Yandex. All four of them were among the top 10 of most popular sites in Ukraine according to the web traffic data company Alexa in May 2017.
The Internet providers were obliged to block access to the sites for a period of three years. Poroshenko’s decision has been met with opposition by human rights groups who consider the move to restrict access to information more in line with authoritarianism than democracy. “When will Ukraine learn that emulating Russia's repression is no way to distinguish itself from Russia,” tweeted Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, comparing the ban to censorship by the government of Russia.
Digital diplomacy and national Internet bans
Today, almost 3 billion people around the world have access to the Internet. This global network influences practically every side of the daily life, including international relations. The Internet has evolved through its organic, even anarchic nature to enable hitherto unprecedented opportunities. As a result, it also created new challenges for policymakers — both real and potential. Many national governments now struggle to deal with security threats, cyber attacks, propaganda, and other activities that have been facilitated by online activities.
As the Internet is today the fastest and most popular way of connecting with the public, national governments (some faster than others) started using cyberspace as another way of pursuing their national objectives. Given this global audience, it comes as no surprise that governments and leaders of 87% of the 193 United Nations member countries now have a presence on the social network. (Twiplomacy study). Over the past decade, Facebook and Twitter have become the channels for community engagement with world leaders.
As the notion of “digital diplomacy” has developed not so long ago, researchers have interpreted it in different but similar ways The United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) elaborates its definition of digital diplomacy on its website: “Digital diplomacy is solving foreign policy problems using the internet”.
Thus, all official actions made by a government online are actions of digital diplomacy (such as official declarations or putting a ban on certain websites). Just as limiting access to information (e.g. restricting access to Western books, TV, radio and music in the Soviet Union), banning access to online resources is considered a sign of a government’s political views. But reality is not as easy as it seems.
According to the Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom of the Net report, China together with Cuba and Iran remain among the most restrictive countries in terms of Internet freedom and the use of social media platforms. North Korea controls all the Internet use in the country, whose population is only allowed to use internal sources of information. Russia has been rated as “not free” by the Freedom of the Net report in 2015. One of the latest cases that created a lot of noise was the restriction of LinkedIn due to the storing of user data of Russian citizens outside the country, which violated the new data retention law. The ban was officially issued by Roskomnadzor on 17 November 2016.
These are a few examples of extreme bans, however, even in liberal countries, where freedom of speech is respected at a high level, bans against propaganda are not unusual. In March 2016, Latvia has shut down the local website of Russia’s foreign news channel Sputnik, calling the state media outlet a “propaganda tool” and questioning the credibility of its reporting on the Ukraine conflict. During the official meeting between the President of France Emmanuel Macron and President of Russia Vladimir Putin, Macron publicly accused Russian media of spreading “falsehood”: “I have always had an exemplary relationship with foreign journalists, but they have to be journalists,” Macron at the Palace of Versailles, adding that “Russia Today and Sputnik were agents of influence and propaganda that spread falsehoods about me and my campaign.”
If some governments use their online platforms as a mean of propaganda and aggression towards another country, if national secret services control websites that are used by citizens of other countries, might it be ethical to limit access to those sources? When does the matter of national security become more important than the free access to information?
Ukrainian bans since the start of war
Since the beginning of tensions between Ukraine and Russia in 2014, many sanctions have already been put in place. (The two neighbors and former Soviet republics have been embroiled in a brutal, three-year war that has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced about 1.7 million eastern Ukrainians).
The Ukraine National Council has banned more than 70 Russian TV channels (even Rain, the Russian opposition channel with quite pro-Ukrainian views, which, however, once showed Crimea as a part of the Russian Federation); more than 500 movies and TV series were also banned from being broadcasted in Ukraine; more than 70 books are under official restriction. Furthermore, according to the national news portal Strana.ua, since 1 January 2017 Russia can no longer export any books to Ukraine. Thus, the Russian speaking population is seeking illegal ways to buy literature in their mother tongue.
Would these measures be considered as going too far? Or do war times require such radical measures? To some it might remind of Soviet time politics, when forbidden books were given to each other under a mood of pervasive fear… However, the issue is much more complex, and some think that these measures are vital for Ukrainians in Russia’s hybrid war.
On the 15th of May 2017, the sanctions were extended to forbid the access of some of the most popular Russian websites: Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki, Mail.ru and Yandex. According to the web traffic data company Alexa, all four are in the top 10 most popular sites in Ukraine. Approximately 25 million Ukrainians – in a country of 43 million people – used these Russian sites to connect with friends, join groups and use the online messaging systems. About 18 million Ukrainians used to visit Vkontakte daily, while Yandex processed 20-25 million search requests per day.
According to President Poroshenko, these restrictions are necessary to further protect Ukraine from Moscow’s hybrid war, including propaganda, transmedia disinformation campaigns and military attacks. Supporters of the ban also said it would protect Ukrainians from the Russian security services’ ability to monitor and gather metadata from the sites’ users. Ukrainian government officials said the sites are closely monitored by Russia’s FSB (Federal Security Service).
“Russian social media sites have played a big role in both mobilizing separatist, pro-Russia sentiment in the Ukraine’s eastern regions and in disseminating anti-Ukrainian hate speech”, said Eugen Fedchenko, the director of the journalism school at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kiev. He added that creating such groups that call for killing Ukrainians on Facebook would be impossible due to stricter guidelines for stopping hate speech. Russian sites do not have such rules. Fedchenko is also founder of a media fact-checking organization called StopFake, working to dispel fake news stories and disinformation campaigns.
Several other Ukrainian politicians also expressed themselves in favor of the ban amid the simmering conflict with Russian-backed separatists, which has killed at least 10,000 people since 2014. They argued that the Russian social media posed a security risk since Russian intelligence has access to data and could gather information about Ukrainian users, including state employees and soldiers.
However, many are very much against the ban, arguing its authoritarian nature, restricting the freedom to information. Sergei Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist who was elected to Ukraine’s parliament in 2014, posted on his Facebook page that the new ban had “much more in common with authoritarian regimes than with the struggle against Russian propaganda.” Mykhailo Chaplyga, the representative of the Ukrainian parliament commissioner for human rights, told the news agency UNIAN that “blocking access to sites without a court decision is not allowed under Ukrainian law”. Web industry representatives said users would be able to get around the ban quite easily. VPN (Virtual private network) clients have already become popular in Russia and Ukraine as a means of access to sites blacklisted by the authorities.
What is the reaction of the population? Many Internet users almost immediately ridiculed the ban. Of more than 11,000 respondents to an online poll on the UNIAN site just after the ban was introduced, 66% said they were “categorically against” the ban of VK, Yandex and other Russian sites. Another 11% said it would be easier to “ban the whole internet, like in North Korea”. However, today even though many people use VPN to access the banned websites, their popularity has largely diminished. The 4 sites are no longer on the top of the 10 most popular. More and more people start using Facebook for communications. According to Internet statistics company LiveInternet estimates from May 30, after two weeks of the ban, Yandex and Mail.ru have lost 70 percent of their Ukrainian users. The biggest Ukrainian mobile operators, which were in charge of blocking the websites, estimate that traffic has now switched from VKontakte and Odnoklassniki to other social networks. It said Facebook visits had increased by 60 percent, Twitter was up 40 percent, and Instagram 33 percent. There has also been an increase in the use of services similar to the banned Russian ones. For example, use of video website YouTube was up by 44 percent, online movie service Megogo by 128 percent, and online music service Deezer by 383 percent.
Freedom of Speech, Democracy and War
The ban on the most popular Russian websites among Ukrainians has caused a lot of critics, but also appreciation. Some compare it to authoritarian China and some say it is the only way to protect the nation from Russian propaganda. However, the answer may not be as clear. According to Dhruva Jaishankar, “Discourse on Internet freedom frequently presents a false choice between freedom and security, or unnecessarily demonizes governments, when in fact the reality is rather more complex”.
“As digital diplomacy becomes much more present in the everyday lives, there are some realities which must be taken into account. It is important to understand that the online world is an outgrowth of the offline world” (Jaishankar, 2014). Policy makers need to understand that online policies cannot be considered in a vacuum or removed from other aspects of public policy, such as freedoms or security. There cannot be a one-size approach to this issue. Rather, there should exist a certain level of tolerance in the Internet space. As we can see, current Internet legislation in many countries is deeply flawed. Often, national laws related to Internet freedom frequently infringe upon rights pertaining to freedom of expression (as in China), and are often vague (as in Ukraine), resulting in arbitrary implementation and the lack of public trust in state adequacy.
At this time of fast digital progress, it is vital to educate policy makers, but also the public about Internet use. Governments should support better research on the relationships between online communications and public opinion, political and social freedoms, and keep looking for ways of engaging citizens more in the decision-making processes. Limiting access to certain websites is not enough as there are easy ways to trick the system. The famous VPN so often used in China for accessing Western websites became more and more popular in Ukraine. However, the amount of Ukrainian users has diminished significantly. Has the aim been achieved? The public opinion polls indicate the results.
A real danger of such policies is that as the issue increases in importance as a matter of national and international policy, concern will not dissipate but simply become relegated to a small echo chamber of like-minded advocates. If governments only accept like-minded sources of information, the population will have no exposure to alternative views. Is it the world we would like to live in?
The Internet is no longer a government-free zone. Governments try to control it and its secret services have the ability to use it in different ways. New policies should be made in order not to make discriminatory laws, but to better regulate the online presence of all different actors.
Aller plus loin:
- Dhruva Jaishankar. Rebooting Digital Diplomacy. Brussels Forum 2014
- Cohen, R. Putting diplomatic studies on the map. Diplomatic studies program newsletter. Leicester: Centre for the Study of Diplomacy (1998)
- Corneliu Biola, Marcus Holmes. Digital Diplomacy: Theory and Practice. Routledge, Political Science 2015, doi: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315730844
- Nicholas Westcott. Digital Diplomacy: The Impact of the Internet on International Relations, Oxford Internet Institute, Research Report 16, July 2008, doi: https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1326476
- Latvia shuts down Russian ‘propaganda’ website Sputnik, Euractiv
- Foreign policy in an era of digital diplomacy, Olubukola S. Adesina, Cogent Social Sciences (2017), 3: 1297175, doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/23311886.2017.1297175
- “Ukraine blocks popular Russian-owned social media sites, saying it's a matter of national security”, LA Times
- “Ukraine does without internet services from Russia”, Kyiv Post