Social networks went into a rage, the President’s site was bombarded with dozens of petitions, and many began talking about censorship on the internet. The reason for this outburst was a ban on Vkontakte, a Russian version of Facebook very popular among schoolkids, Yandex, Russia’s answer to Google, and Mail.ru in Ukraine
News about the possible blocking of Vkontakte was a bombshell: some users actively expressed their rage over such a decision, comparing Ukraine to North Korea, popular groups began to send out instructions about how to get around the bans, and there were even calls to prepare for a protest march. By evening May 16, the VK administration had already sent around a link to a page with instructions for how to get around any blockage. What’s more a slew of groups began to openly manipulate information about the “economic benefits” of using Russian services, that their corporate mail servers were cheaper, ads better quality, and so on. Of course, there was also the standard criticism of the President and plenty of on-line humor over the recent scandal with his son wearing a CCCP (Soviet Union – Ed.) sweatshirt. Still, it would make sense to start with a look at the actual sanctions list and study the history of how it was approved.
On April 26, the Cabinet of Ministers issued Resolution #288, which approved and submitted to the National Security Council a proposal to institute sanctions against a slew of physical and legal entities in relation to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. On April 28, the NSC approved the necessary decision. Two weeks later, Poroshenko brought the decision into force with Presidential Decree #133.2017 dated May 15, 2017.
Altogether, 468 legal and 1,228 physical entities were entered into the list, some of which had already had restrictions placed on them earlier. But this year, the list was expanded. In addition to Russian banks like Financial Standard, airlines like Transaero, ‘nationalized’ enterprises in Crimea such as a variety of rehabilitation centers connected to different sectors of the economy, community associations such as the neonazi Grand Don Army, and Russian payment systems, OOO Vkontakte, OOO Mail.RU Group, OOO Yandex and OOO 1C, the developer of an accounting system widely used in Ukraine, and their Ukrainian affiliates found themselves on blacklisted.
Worth remembering is that the Yarovaya package passed in Russia in 2016 (it is generally known as counterterrorism package that includes two laws. These expand the mandate of law enforcement agencies, put forth new requirements for telecoms operators and internet projects, operators of postal services, and stronger regulations of certain religious groups) allows personal data about users to be handed over to the security services the minute the FSB requests it.
It’s possible to assume that, if these companies had other core businesses, such as steel, then most Ukrainians would hardly have paid attention to the bans. However, sanctions against the IT sector require blocking IT products as well. And since VKontakte happens to be a social media service, it’s easy enough to start to imagine that internet censorship is behind the ban. This is the point where we move out of the economic dimension (the companies paying taxes to the Russian budget, hence helping fund its war against Ukraine) and into the social one. Since this has already happened, the development of the domestic internet was inevitably tied into the Russian segment of the World-Wide Web up to a certain point and was integrated into the internet culture—and general culture, for that matter—of the Russian Federation. From the very start, though, there never were any popular Ukrainian alternatives to Odnoklassniki (Schoolmates) or VKontakte, and the products that did eventually appear never managed to gain real popularity. Russia’s 1C bookkeeping system pretty much monopolized the Ukrainian market. Things began to change only after the annexation of Crimea in early 2014. Some Ukrainians using the Russian networks, including opinion leaders, deliberately deleted their accounts and some of them moved to Facebook. At the same time, the wave of patriotic fervor led to pro-Ukrainian groups becoming very popular. There were also attempts to launch an alternative social media made in Ukraine, such as weua.info, but few people know about it to this day.
However, if recent studies are correct, even Facebook continued to lose out to VKontakte in terms of sheer numbers of users in Ukraine. On the other hand, VKontakte was being used until not so long ago to coordinate pro-Russian separatists through all kinds of “self-defense” groups. Security services admit that that’s where people were being recruited into the ranks of the opolchennia or “insurrection” and anti-Ukrainian propaganda was rife. It’s also worth pointing out that the founder of VKontakte, Pavel Durov, at one point announced that his company was being taken over by raiders: something called the UCP Foundation had received nearly 50% of the company’s stock. Moreover, he claimed that the FSB more than once demanded that VK provide the personal data of Ukrainians who were coordinating groups connected to the Euromaidan. In the end, Durov announced that he was selling his shares and left the business.
At this point, the Ukrainian internet began to talk about VKontakte being an FSB project and there was plenty of evidence of that, besides Durov’s own claims: it was filled with pro-Russian propaganda based on the notions of a “common history” and “brotherly peoples,” and the groups run by Russian proxies mentioned earlier, and the Yarovaya laws. In addition to this, from time to time VKontakte’s more popular groups would disseminate “ideologically correct” memes tied to Ukraine or the war in Donbas. Given the great popularity of the resource among Ukrainians, this could not but have an impact. Despite the fact that the Ukrainian representative of this social net has declared more than once that it has nothing to do with Russian security services, this conviction has not diminished. Let’s put it this way: on May 16, the Ministry of Information Policy itself announced that while the sanctioned social media weren’t on their list to be blocked, they were actively being used by the FSB.
“Such resources as VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Yandex, and Mail.RU GROUP have long been used by Russia’s security services as an instrument in the hybrid war,” says Artem Bidenko, the Ministry’s State Secretary. He adds that his Ministry had received a “list of facts and arguments to support the use of sanctions against Russian social nets” during the NSC meeting on April 28. “Given the facts provided, in light of the country’s security, the NSC decision was in line with the objectives that face the country today in relation to its territorial integrity and social protection,” the official confirmed. However, the Ministry has not presented any specific facts.
The companies who fell under the sanctions this time themselves claim that they are above politics and will continue to defend the interests of their users through all available means.
However, if the ideologically the ban is nevertheless understandable, one way or another, technically it presents problems. At a time when the internet is as developed as it is today, the only way to completely block access to an online resource is to actually destroy its servers. Any other way simply makes access harder. A good example is the unsuccessful battle with the piracy-oriented torrent-tracker Thepiratebay: law enforcement agencies in various countries at various times tried to eliminate those servers but in the end looked like they were tilting with windmills. All that these governments could do was to complicate access to the platform, but not to get rid of it altogether.
Judging by the results, this same story is likely to be repeated with any attempt to block VKontakte and other Russian social nets. Right now, the Ukrainian government has two options: to shift the burden of restricting access onto ISPs, or to set up something similar to China’s “Golden Shield,” better known as the Great China Firewall.
“Can providers block access to sites?” asks digital security expert Vadym Hudym. “The question is whether they will want to, given that a large part of their traffic is precisely on Russian social nets and services. Technically, they could put a number of sites on their blacklist and not allow direct access through their servers, of course.”
“The government could also try to force ISPs to block certain sites but that will work worse here than in Russia,” says “Sean Townsend,” a hactivist with the Ukrainian Cyber Alliance. “Moreover, I suspect the providers themselves will resist any moves of this kind because it will require them to allocate additional resources to do so.”
The NSC also admits that it won’t be able to completely block access to Russian web resources.
“Technically, of course, we can’t completely block access to something like VKontakte,” says Valentyn Petrov, the director of the NSC’s Informational Security Service. “There are more than enough workarounds available today. But we can restrict access to this site for certain segments of its users, and to cut them off from Russian propaganda. This will make it harder for them to recruit mercenaries to the proxy militias.”
Petrov adds that the process of blocking will be handled by providers who have the options for doing this, while a court decision in this matter might not be binding, depending on the NSC’s instructions.
“Some internet providers have already indicated that they are quite prepared to block access to these resources,” says Petrov. “Others are claiming technical or other kinds of difficulties. I would say that, on this issue, it’s more how much they want do to this.” But experts are skeptical about this kind of blocking, not the least because of the options for getting around such restrictions.
“Will Ukrainian users be cut off from VKontakte?” notes Hudym. “No, because there is a huge number of servers that will allow people to get around the ban. They don’t require any new skills and are pretty user-friendly.”
Townsend concurs: “There are plenty of ways to anonymize and reroute internet traffic. For instance, Rutracker.org was blocked long ago in the Russian Federation, but it hasn’t stopped even the least clued-in user from downloading pirated content from the site to this day. In short, this kind of ban should be seen as a nasty practice. In fighting Russia and the soviet past with typically Russian, i.e., soviet, methods, we could end up as just ‘another Russia’—that is, yet another country with an authoritarian regime, only under a different flag.”
As to setting up a Great Ukraine Firewall, experts say that this is impossible to do, given the economic and political situation in Ukraine today, because it would cost enormous amounts of money.
“Ukraine simply does not have the financial resources to set up its own version of the Great China Firewall,” Townsend explains. “First of all proper blocking requires extremely expensive equipment called DPI or Deep Packet Inspection, the cost of which ISPs will partly shift to users. It’s hard to say how much this might cost. There’s very little information out there about the Golden Shield, but one source says that CCTV, the central television broadcaster in China, alone spent more than US $770 million on this already in 2002. And a repressive Russian version will be very costly indeed.
“Secondly, it’s likely to work poorly and to need additional bans against the next links in the chain,” Townsend continues. “This becomes passport-based internet and a ban on any kind of anonymization. But there is a simple alternative: economic sanctions that don’t even have to be direct. It’s possible to establish conditions for Russian companies to operate that will simply render them uncompetitive while instituting blocks in the public sector. Private companies that work with the public sector will have to simply take this into account. Another option would be to offer indirect preferences to non-Russian companies and, ultimately, to use your own propaganda.”
At this time, there’s no talk of other options in the government. Possibly such decisions will be made public soon, given that a series of roundtables and briefings on this topic have already been scheduled. So far, the impression is that the decision to block is more for show and a delayed response. After all, even Ukraine’s ISPs, on whose shoulders the technical aspects of this decision will be placed, have been anything but unanimous in their reactions: some have already told the press that they are prepared to block these resources within a week, while others say they are “studying the Presidential Decree and preparing the technical specs to carry it out,” and still others have stated outright that it is impossible to fully block these sites. Either way, the law says that extended sanctions against many companies, not just those who own social networks, are to come into effect no later than June 1.