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The indiscreet charm of a ban

By banning popular social media outlets, Ukraine and Russia have exposed the technological unawareness of its ageing governments. But where will these authoritarian-inspired measures really lead to?

On the 8th of May Telegram, an app which has been banned in Russia since early April, turned to the Supreme Court of Russia with an appeal.

“Not sure why the messenger needs it. It benefits from the ban,” commented Pavel Salin, Director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University.

Indeed, Telegram has become the forbidden fruit: following the ban, the app’s audience in Russia has not dwindled, but in fact expanded. Pavel Durov, the app’s creator, estimates that 15 mln Russians are its active users and thanks Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft for refusing to maintain the censorship. These sites, specifically Amazon, have been claimed to use domain fronting and providing its subnetworks to Telegram to circumvent the ban.

And with much success. Even Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman and a Russian big shot, confessed after the ban: “My Telegram still works, no big deal.” If it is indeed no big of a deal, why is there so much ado?

Russia’s Western neighbour Ukraine was quick to mock the Russian decision, emphasising that “they blocked everything except for Telegram”. And yet its government had done exactly the same. Back in 2017, in a continuous effort to block the Russian sites and channels, it blocked the biggest social media Vkontakte (VK), ironically, also created by Mr. Durov, as well as Odnoklassniki.ru

Both countries used similar state-security related explanations when justifying a widespread assault on freedom of expression. Hence, Russia cited the need to combat terrorism while Ukraine used the ban to obstruct the Russian misinformation spread, such as the notorious fake child crucifixion newspiece.

The result, however, is awkwardly alike: VK continues to be the second most popular social media with 32% of Ukrainians (6,8 mln) using it in December 2017, leaving ban supporters disappointed after a small triumph in 2016. Back then, Ms. Antonina Cherevko, for example, from the International Media Support contently stated that “a legal ban on Russian TV channels in Ukraine contributed to a considerable drop in public trust in Russian media, now down at around 1.3 per cent only” justifying both the prohibitions and proving their effectiveness.

Now, the situation is different. One reason is that the Internet is a dramatically different area comparing to television: indeed for an average, Ukrainian 50+ TV consumer, it is a challenge to master both the PC and related programmes. Mr. Zorian Shkiriak, an advisor to the Minister for Internal Affairs and an ardent supporter of the VK’s ban, for instance, believes that it takes “an expert” using “some twisted ways” to log onto the site. Now, double-check your computer: You might have that “twisted way” installed — a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which enables you to connect to different servers around the world and circumvent bans.

A rather more jocose instance of technological unawareness was presented by the head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) Vasyl Grytsak when disclosing the Ukrainian MP Mr. Anton Gerashenko’s assassination plot. Thus he gravely explained that the assassinators “were conspiracy-literate” and used “closed apps with vanishing messages.” Mr. Grystak, however, did not elaborate how often hitmen use open-access means to hatch high profile lethal plots, nor which of the apps — Telegram or Snapchat available at your Apple/Google store — were used.

Likewise, Mr. Peskov also claimed that he is not that technologically literate to circumvent the Telegram’s ban once the Russian authorities fully block the traditional ways: “I am just not that sophisticated of a user, it is too difficult for me.”

It is precisely these statements which show how out of touch both political elites are with the modern technological scene. While they should of course be taken with a pinch of salt, in the governments where a 50+ average bureaucrat  still continues to think in the Soviet totalitarian terms of banning, blocking and shutting down, the ground for technological literacy is tenuous at best.

The appetite for interfering the technological scene, however, is growing. Hence the SSU stormed the Odessa offices of ForkLog, claiming that it uses cryptocurrency to sponsor terrorists in the East of Ukraine and prompting POLITICO to call it the Wild East of Cryptocurrencies. For young Ukrainians, heavily involved in the crypto world, the actions of the government, which has only recently announced that it is looking to legalise bitcoin, were shocking.

The bans and raids go beyond the freedom of speech vs the governmental regulation debate — a worthy one given the continuous struggle of the two countries to create a truly democratic environment and resorting to what the international standards qualify as extreme measures. It also begs the question where these regulations will lead to, most notably for the more “sophisticated” than Mr. Peskov younger generation.

In Ukraine’s case 75% of young people partially or completely disbelieve the political leaders and the turnout for elections continues to decline. Realising that the head of the SSU might not own a smartphone while contributing to prohibitions regarding its usage, does little to improve their perception.

Likewise, in Russia it was not just the opposition which was expressing dissatisfaction about the Telegram’s ban following the detention of its leader Mr. Alexei Navalnyi, but also the ruling elite. Despite Mr. Putin’s recent triumph., the Russian society is craving changes, and divisions exist at the governmental level. These anti-regulation sentiments might matter, after all.

Hence at the end of the day both states might find themselves in a trap of illusional success, while promoting the benevolent, “now-now” paternal tap on the shoulder-like rule. Not only because it damages the freedom of expression but because citizens become more and more apathetic and frustrated watching their out-of-touch governments act.

For both Russian and Ukrainian societies, in which the young get hold of multiple technologies, Mr. Durov is promising to donate millions of US dollars on proxy and VPN , and the blood shedding Ukrainian Euromaidan just four years old, this spells a precarious outcome — a development which the region needs the least.

 

By Lesia Dubenko

 

Image attribution: bsdourin/Pixabay
https://pixabay.com/en/network-server-system-2402637/

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