A month after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree that banned several popular Russian websites, Ukrainians look to have taken the move in stride.
The May 16 decree, which expanded Ukraine’s sanctions against Russian companies and individuals, blocked access in Ukraine to the popular Russian websites Yandex and Mail.ru, and the social networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki.
Software developers ABBYY and C1 were sanctioned as well.
According to internet service providers and other web companies, Ukrainians have either found ways around the ban or simply switched to using alternative services.
Before the ban, around 24 million Ukrainians – more than half of the population – used the Russian websites. Three of them, Vkontakte, Yandex and Mail.ru, were among the five most popular websites in Ukraine. About 18 million Ukrainians used to visit Vkontakte daily, while Yandex processed 20-25 million search requests per day.
But on the morning of May 17, millions of people woke to find that they no longer had access to Russian social media accounts and other internet services. It looks like a good many of them promptly started looking for ways around the ban.
On the same day the decree was published, there was a surge in downloads of apps that route internet traffic through proxy servers based in other countries, which allow internet users to sidestep website bans.
“We observed a 300-percent increase in people from Ukraine on our website on that day,” said Elizabeth Kintzele, the spokesperson of the popular Swiss company Golden Frog, which offers internet privacy services. And the traffic, according to Kintzele continued to grow, reaching 1,400 percent on May 19. Downloads of the company’s products initially grew by seven times and are still above average.
Another internet privacy company, KeepSolid from Odesa, saw even more astonishing results — the amount of users of its VPN Unlimited service increased by 980 times.
However, KeepSolid’s management believe Poroshenko was right to ban websites that carry information from the propagandists of “the aggressor country.”
“It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that no ban can stop the spread of any information (on the internet),” KeepSolid spokesperson Vera Mayuk told the Kyiv Post.
The developer of one of the world’s most famous internet browsers Opera, which also has an option for accessing blocked websites, noticed an upsurge in Ukrainian users of the browser, especially the desktop version.
According to Oleksiy Stolyarenko, a senior associate at Baker McKenzie, the issue of starting to ban anonymizers, VPN services, and browsers like Tor, or prosecuting those who use them, isn’t being considered at the moment.
“The May 16 decree does not in fact forbid users from using the blocked websites,” Stolyarenko told the Kyiv Post.
And many Ukrainians still do it — via proxy servers that make it look as if the websites are being accessed from Germany, the Netherlands, the United States and the United Kingdom, for instance.
Ukrainian blogger and media expert Roman Shraik has estimated that daily access to Russian websites from Germany has grown by 800,000 people, in the United States and Britain it is up by 650,000; while in the Netherlands there are a million “new” users of Russian websites.
Even so, large numbers of Ukrainians have deserted the Russian internet.
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. Even if the additional 2.45 million “new” users from other countries are taken into account, RuNet has still lost 11.5 million daily users.
And according to Watcher, an online Ukrainian internet-business magazine, 1.5 million more people from Ukraine had signed up for Facebook by June.
Providers take hits
The ones most affected by Poroshenko’s decree are the internet providers, which are responsible for implementing the ban. According to Stolyarenko from Baker McKenzie, while there is no precise legal mechanism to force the providers to comply with the ban, if providers fail to cut off access to the banned websites they could find themselves in breach of Ukraine’s telecommunications laws.
In practice, he says, this will manifest itself in some operators having problems in prolonging or obtain licenses, and in increased pressure from the regulator — the National Commission for the State Regulation of Communications and Informatization (NCSRCI).
“In reality,” explains Stolyarenko, “a clear hint (has been made) to providers that if they don’t block the sites, they’ll lose their licenses and the authorities will inspect them more often.”
There are signs this is already happening: on June 1, Ukraine’s SBU security service searched the office of a large Ukrainian provider, Wnet. The provider was accused of illegally routing internet traffic to Crimea and cooperating with the Federal Security Service (FSB) of Russia.
According to Kyiv Post estimates, at least five Kyiv providers still provide access to the banned websites. One of them is ZNet, which says it will block them “as soon as they receive the order” to do so.
Another Kyiv provider, LocalNet, has already started blocking the websites, even though initially they weren’t ready technically for such changes — on May 22, the provider announced that it would start banning the sites only when “the authorities explained the procedure for its implementation.”
In the same message, the company said that together with the Ukrainian Internet Association it had sent a request to Poroshenko, the National Security and Defense Council, the SBU and other authorities asking that they clarify how and when to implement the decree.
Some Ukrainian media interpreted this as a refusal to block the banned websites. On May 23, there were reports that the provider had revolted and that it had made up an excuse not to block VKontakte. The provider is now refusing to talk to the press, telling the Kyiv Post that it had become “disappointed with journalists.”
Meanwhile, internet users in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory of Crimea have also been affected by the ban. On May 31, Crimean subscribers of provider Telesistemy complained that they had lost access to Yandex, VKontakte, and Odnoklassniki.
According to reports, Telesistemy subscribers saw an announcement in Ukrainian on their browser saying that the Ukrainian provider Volia had cut off access. However, Volia told the Kyiv Post that it no longer operates in Crimea and has had no connections with Telesistemy since 2014, when it sold all of its assets to Russia’s LLC Telecommunication Systems.
Mobile cut offs
The biggest Ukrainian mobile operators, which together service 60 million active SIM-cards — Kyivstar, Vodafone Ukraine and lifecell — had no problem blocking the websites: all did so on May 17.
Kyivstar, which has more than 11 million mobile internet users and 800,000 fixed-internet subscribers, says it hasn’t lost any clients and hasn’t suffered financially due to the ban.
“Our clients understood that the operator was obliged to comply with the decree, so there was no negative reaction,” Kyivstar spokesperson Iryna Lelichenko told the Kyiv Post.
According to the operator’s estimates, 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.