|Майдан / Статті|
Ivan Lozowy: A Web with Frontiers
Версія до друку // Редагувати // Стерти // URL: http://maidan.org.ua/static/mai/1072771030.html
KYIV, Ukraine--In Ukraine, the Internet is seen as the last remaining outpost of independent media. Here, the cyber-punk concept of a "web without frontiers" is a reality: for Ukrainians, the Internet offers the only free access to objective information. The balance in favor of freedom of _expression is, however, precarious, with two new pieces of legislation in Ukraine's parliament potentially giving security services the ability to control providers, censor content, and track users.
Most major mass-media outlets in Ukraine belong to a particular oligarch or financial-industrial group, also known as a "clan." The remainder are fervent devotees of the practice of self-censorship, and toe the government line by presenting only the politically correct view of events; promoting individuals who are tied to the ruling establishment, and ignoring those who are out of favor.
The Internet is a different story, a virtual world in which freedom and happy chaos abound. A plethora of Internet media provide truly independent Ukrainian news coverage. The sites are run by enthusiasts or funded by Western donors or small private sponsors; the editors are unfettered by interference in their editorial policy.
One of the most influential online media is Ukrayinska Pravda, founded originally by Georgiy Gongadze, the journalist whose murder in September 2000 generated a prolonged crisis for Leonid Kuchma's presidency. Ukrayinska Pravda is so influential that many government officials begin their day by scanning its contents, even though the publication is politically opposed to President Kuchma.
The <b> Maidan website </b> is run by a small group of enthusiasts, as a forum on news and politics, and has one of the highest click-through rates. Detailed information on the misdeeds of the rich and powerful is exposed on the website Ukrayina Kriminalna (rumored to be backed by dissident elements of Ukraine's secret services). There are a multitude of small but informative sites, including the UA Today news site and a net-based radio station, Public Radio. On the Internet, opposition websites, such as those of Rukh Press and Yulia Tymoshenko, compete head-to-head with sites run by clan-funded parties, such as the Social Democratic Party (United), whose chairman, Viktor Medvedchuk, runs the presidential administration.
The Internet's ease of use and low barriers to entry are a godsend for Ukrainians starved for information. In contrast to developed countries, where entertainment is the chief form of content on the web, in Ukraine it is news, politics, and practical information that are in most demand. That is hardly surprising, given the stifling atmosphere of the more traditional, conformist media. A typical television news broadcast, for example, gives relatively little coverage to events within Ukraine, and the coverage is superficial. The reason is simple: practically any topic is riddled with dangers for the high-and-mighty.
Two laws, double-whammy
Today the Ukrainian Internet community is raising the alarm: two draft laws threaten the status quo by proposing increased state oversight of how the Internet functions in Ukraine.
One of these pieces of legislation is a new "Telecommunications Law," which on 18 November passed with 296 votes of the 450 deputies in parliment. This law, if signed by President Kuchma, would give the government practically unrestricted and uncontrolled rights to monitor the Internet.
If the bill becomes law, Internet providers will have to install and maintain (at their own expense) what are, in effect, Internet eavesdropping devices. They would also have to keep the use of these Internet-tapping devices by government agencies secret from their own clients and users. Government use of the Internet-tapping devices would be limited to "operational search measures," but in practice this is not a restriction, since Ukraine's laws don't require a court order to allow law-enforcement agencies to initiate criminal investigations (including "operational searches").
The new law foresees the creation of a "National Telecommunications Regulatory Commission," which (as well as regulating telecom prices) would be able to inspect the operations of telecom operators, including Internet service providers. In addition, a "State Telecommunications Inspectorate" would be created. It would have right of entry onto the premises of service providers, and would be authorized to demand from them all "necessary information." The new law would also give the existing State Committee on Communications and Information Technology the right to limit the types and models of technical equipment used by telecom service providers, including Internet providers.
If the new telecommunication law is very bad news for service providers, then the new "Law on Activities in the Area of Information Technology," which also passed its first reading on 18 November, is a scene from an Internet hell. Under this law, both Internet service providers and users are restricted to transmitting only "true, complete and timely information." Website owners would be forbidden from publishing information that "may impugn the honor, dignity, and professional reputation of individuals"; from "interfering in the private lives of citizens"; or distributing "incorrect or distorted information." Given the nature of Ukraine's political and judicial system, passing such a law is akin to the authorities declaring open season on journalists.
In addition, the owners of websites would be liable for all damages caused by information located on their sites. In a novel approach to fighting spam, the new law allows providers to forward to their customers only e-mails that are stipulated in the contract between the provider and the customer.
The government's attempts to muscle in on the Internet in Ukraine are not limited to these seriously flawed legislative initiatives. For several years, the Secret Service of Ukraine (SBU), the successor to the former KGB, has advocated a more direct role in Internet affairs. In May 2003, the SBU proposed creating a "Ukrainian Network Information Center," which would be charged with administering the country's Internet domain, ".ua". In July 2003, the cabinet issued the directive to create it.
Since 1992, the ".ua" domain has been run by two individuals, who created a company, Hostmaster, to manage the technical aspects of administering the domain. Hostmaster took the government to court, claiming that the directive infringed on its rights. Hostmater's managers have been scathing in their comments, noting that the Ukrainian government cannot do anything to change decisions adopted by ICANN, the international body charged with delegating the administration of Internet domain names.
Resistance to government interference grows
Ukraine's security services may have been slow to realize the potential of the Internet, but they are without a doubt now catching on. In 2000, a "Department of Special Telecommunications Systems and Data Protection" was created within the SBU, ostensibly to study security issues connected with the Internet. Instead, the concept of security has been used by the SBU to intrude into Ukraine's relatively free cyberspace. Some providers have complained that the SBU is trying to extract confidential information on users. One major provider, Lucky Net, has accepted the notion of a Ukrainian Network Information Center--but rumors suggest the SBU used financial irregularities to blackmail it into compliance.
In contrast, most of the other major service providers have united behind the Ukrainian Internet Association (UIA), which initially supported the idea of centralized administration of the ".ua" domain, but then withdrew. The UIA has been highly critical of the new information-technology law. Another Ukrainian NGO, the Internet Association, has appealed to President Kuchma to intervene and "put a stop to disguised interference by the secret services" in the ".ua" domain issue.
As things stand, Hostmaster remains in charge of the domain, and it would probably be technically impossible for the government to take control of the domain without the ICANN's approval. The chances of ICANN passing control over to the Ukrainian government are practically zero.
The government faces other major difficulties in seizing direct control over the Internet. The draft telecom and information-technology laws have already drawn fire from organizations such as Reporters without Borders. If the government made further moves, international pressure would mount. More significantly, sites could move to servers outside Ukraine if government interference becomes intense. Many sites, particularly those that present controversial material, are already placed on servers in Russia; while others, like <b>Maidan</b>, are maintained in the United States.
But if heavy-handed legislation will not freeze the development of Ukraine's Internet, it will certainly chill it. As Ukrayinska Pravda has written: "If the government begins to destroy a specific publication, then a journalist can simply be blocked from sending his article to a Western server. And the only way out then will be physical emigration."
For more articles on Ukraine, visit our Ukraine country file, at http://ukraine.tol.cz.
Ivan Lozowy is a TOL correspondent and also runs an Internet newsletter, the Ukraine Insider.
To access the archives of the January, 2003, Internet-conference with Mr. Lozovy at Maidan's Free Forum, please visit http://maidan.org.ua/n/hotline/1011907122 (in Ukrainian).
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