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The Russia-Ukraine Internet Censorship War Rages On

A list of proposed sites to block in Ukraine includes media sites, e-sports, and LiveJournal entries.

As Ukrainian refugees try to find shelter from the conflict, and hundreds of the country's troops cross into Russia, the information war between the two countries wages on, with both sides engaging in censorship of material they deem to be dangerous.

The Daily Dot reports that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) recently proposed a list of websites that should be blocked in the country because they apparently "promote war, ethnic hatred, and violent change in the constitutional order or territorial integrity of Ukraine."

The SBU letter (published here, in Ukrainian) asks the Ukrainian Internet Association (UIA) to block around 60 websites. I logged on to check some of the sites out myself. They included gaming site Maidan.ru, pictured above, whose homepage Google translates as reading, "You have to build a military base, turn your battalion strong army to confront NATO troops to join other players in strategic alliances and political alliances." There's also a series of LiveJournal entries (the micro-blogging service is popular in Russia), and a long list of news and media sites.

Some of the sites obviously incite violence, but it's not immediately obvious why others made the list. E-Sports site GoodGame.ru, apart from being frequented by Russian players, doesn't jump out as something that may undermine the national security of Ukraine. 

Screenshot: GoodGame.ru

The URLs of a couple of Youtube videos are also listed in the letter, one of which I couldn't access because its respective account had been terminated "due to multiple third-party notification of copyright infringement." The other wasn't responding at all.

"It is not surprising that the Ukrainian government is looking for ways to shut down the growing proliferation of hateful and militaristic propaganda, mostly coming out of Russia and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine," Matthew Schaaf, program officer for Eurasia at civil liberty NGO Freedom House, told me. He added that, "Given the polarized environment, I'm sure many Ukrainians would support this type of blockage."

If the block list is enforced, however, it's likely to be pretty futile. The letter "is addressed to a business association which represents only a portion of Ukrainian ISPs," Schaaf pointed out. There's also the fact that these sites and their content could be mirrored elsewhere, circumventing censorship.

Ukraine has successfully censored other material since the country's bitter rivalry with Russia turned violent. Back in March, a Kiev court suspended four Russian television channels for very similar reasons. The country's Council of National Security and Defense said that their broadcasts "threaten the national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine." At least one cable operator said it would replace the banned broadcasters with Ukrainian ones.

But this latest letter is a little different, because it comes from a security agency rather than a court of law. "International law and human rights protections allow the blockage of media and online content in certain extreme circumstances such as those we see in Ukraine right now," Schaaf said, "but it does not allow for a government official or the security service to just send off a letter or make a call on their own initiative demanding that YouTube or any other site be blocked."

"If the Ukrainian government identifies websites or any other media it thinks is propagandizing war or hatred, it should seek a court's for permission to block that content," he concluded.

Russia has of course used similar censorship tactics too. In March, for example, the Guardian reported that the country had blocked the blog of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and three major news websites. Today, the Telegraph reported that information controllers were also considering banning the Russian site of the BBC, after it published an interview with artist Artem Loskutov. Loskutov, who wants Siberia to separate from Russia, is considered an "extremist" by the state.

And Russia has continued to clamp down on freedom of expression on the internet more generally, with a recently introduced law forcing popular bloggers to register with the government. These restrictions could also apply to internet users in Crimea, thanks to a newly-built cable delivering internet access to the region through Russia.