When a country bans parts of the internet, it’s bad for free speech. This is something China, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia do, not democracies.
So alarm bells went off when President Petro Poroshenko on May 16 restricted Ukrainians’ access to Russian search engine Yandex, mail agent Mail.ru and Russian social media websites VKontakte and Odnoklassniki for three years. All four are among the 10 most-visited websites in Ukraine.
The worry is not that Poroshenko’s ban will succeed. It’s impossible to enforce: Within hours VKontakte sent messages to its Ukrainian users telling them how to bypass the ban. Anyone who doesn’t know can simply google it.
Rather, it’s Poroshenko’s timing and motives that are concerning, as well as the damage done to Ukraine’s image as a country seeking to become a modern democracy governed by the rule of law. The internet was designed to ensure information always gets through - that’s why authoritarians dislike it and seek to restrict it.
Russia’s propaganda machine, of course, pounced gleefully on Poroshenko’s ban. The president justified the ban on these websites and other media, including one of Russia’s last independent television stations, RBK, as being “in support of economic and personal sanctions” imposed by the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers. Notably, however, websites of the Kremlin-controlled RT and propaganda media Sputnik aren’t blocked. Another pro-Kremlin Russian news website Life.ru isn’t touched.
Complicating the issue is the fact that Russia uses these websites to disseminate propaganda and gather intelligence in its war against Ukraine. It is still the main destination for pro-Russian Ukrainians, but it is not the only one.
A temporary ban of all Russian websites and media at the start of Russia’s war in 2014 could have achieved something useful and would have been more justifiable. Now it’s more questionable. Poroshenko, after all, didn’t stop doing business in Russia until he was forced to do so. Russia remains Ukraine’s largest investor and trade partner. Other blockades and bans have been led by citizens, not Ukraine’s political leaders.
Poroshenko’s ban looks more like a clumsy attempt to be seen as doing something rather than achieving anything useful. The president still has yet to officially declare this a war or rally the nation for shared commitment and sacrifice -- especially billionaire oligarchs like himself.
While the ban on VKontakte and Odnoklassniki might filter out harmful Russian information assaults, it will also restrict Ukrainians’ access to information and potentially cut off valuable information for Ukraine’s own intelligence gathering.
In the end, this ban does more harm than good.