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Russian Websites Vkontakte, Yandex, and Odnoklassniki to Be Blocked in Ukraine

May 16 – Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree blocking access to Russian websites and imposed a range of sanctions on Russian companies and individuals. The decree enacts an April 28 decision of the National Security and Defense Council which drafted a list of people and entities to be sanctioned. The sanctions are effective May 16, the day the decree is published.

Internet access to Russian websites, including the Mail.Ru Group and its mail.ru service, will be blocked, along with access to Russian companies DrWeb and Kaspersky Lab, which provide computer virus protection services.

Economic sanctions were imposed on Russian television channels TV Center, RBK, NTV-Plus, TNT, and REN OTR. The channels were banned from broadcasting in Ukraine, and their assets were blocked.

VKontakte, Yandex, and Odnoklassniki are leading websites in Ukraine in terms of daily visitors. VKontakte is the most popular social network in Ukraine, and the Yandex search engine is second only to Google in the country. More than 5 million Ukrainians log in daily to the Odnoklassniki social network.

Journalists and media analysts have divided opinions on the situation. Most media community representatives protested the decree, seeing it as attack on freedom of expression. “We are turning into Russia, except we have no oil,” said philosopher Mikhail Minakov.

“Nothing can justify such a blanket ban! Blatant violation of freedom of expression,” the Eastern Europe and Central Asian desk of media-rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders said on Twitter.

“President Poroshenko’s decree to ban access to Russian social media and news platforms – Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki, Yandex, RBC – is another misguided political step and a terrible blow to internet freedom and freedom of information in Ukraine. Poroshenko should reverse this decree, and the EU and other international partners of Ukraine should insist on it,” said Tanya Cooper, a Ukraine researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Other observers disagreed. “If it will be possible to do this, this will be the greatest contribution to the protection of information sovereignty of Ukraine ever,” StopFake founder Yevhen Fedchenko said.

Adrian Karatnycky, a fellow at the U.S.-based Atlantic Council, said it was “reasonable” for Ukraine to ban the Russian sites given “that the country is at war with Russia, Russia is launching cyberattacks on Ukraine, and clearly the Russian sites are subject to information sharing.” Metadata from these sites, he said, could be used for “mapping political and social preferences, modeling discontent” which, in turn, could be exploited in plans to further destabilize the country and interfere in future elections.

Vitalii Moroz, head of new media at Internews Ukraine, said authorities are providing another response to the Russian disinformation threat. These threats are considered real, but some media observers doubt the decree is a good answer to them.

“This will be a significant blow to internet freedom in Ukraine, and the country will deteriorate significantly its rating in the eyes of the international community,” Moroz added.

Many experts believe limiting the internet in the 21st century is impossible unless a national information firewall – as in China – is built.

More in Kyiv Post and The Interpreter and on Ukraine Crisis Media Center’swebsite, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, and Financial Times websites in English.