Law enforcement bodies monitored the internet, at times without appropriate legal authority, and took significant steps during the year to block access to websites based on “national security concerns.”
On March 19, then president Poroshenko endorsed new sanctions approved by the National Security and Defense Council that, among other things, extended sanctions on the Russian company Yandex and its services until 2022. Ukrainian internet providers continued to block websites at government demand based on national security concerns. On February 11, the SBU announced that it intended to block 100 websites that promote Russian interests in the country. As of October, 240 sites were blocked in the country. According to monitoring by CyberLab Ukraine, internet service-provider compliance with the government’s orders to block sites varied greatly. On July 22, the National Security and Defense Council announced it would continue the policy of blocking Russian social networks.
On September 30, a district administrative court in Kyiv dismissed a lawsuit brought by the For Free Net Ukraine Coalition against the Ministry of Information Policy, asking it to disclose the government’s criteria and methodology when creating its lists of internet resources to be banned on national security grounds.
Free speech advocates expressed concern that courts began to block access to websites on grounds other than national security. For example, on July 23, a Kyiv court ruled to block access to 18 websites, including blogging platform enigma.ua, at the request of the Kyiv Oblast prosecutor’s office on vague grounds related to violations of intellectual property rights. The owner of enigma.ua stated that he believed the blocking of his site was in retaliation for its publication of material critical of the country’s security services.
There were reports of the disclosure of personally identifiable information of persons to penalize expression of opinions. Between October 31 and November 5, Andriy Portnov, a former lawmaker and deputy head of former president Viktor Yanukovych’s administration, released personally identifying information of editorial and staff members of the anticorruption television program Schemes, as well as the registration data on 16 vehicles used by staff members of the program, on his Telegram messaging channel. In a November 5 message, Portnov invited anyone who comes across these vehicles to “give a stiff rebuff” to the drivers; he also suggested on October 31 that a driver whose personal data he disclosed was also under surveillance and could be exposed to physical harm. Portnov’s actions were apparently in response to an investigation by Schemes into his relationships with officials currently in the government.
The Myrotvorets (peacemaker) database, which published the personally identifying information of individuals it deemed to be “anti-Ukrainian” online and which reportedly maintained close ties to the country’s security services, published the personal data of journalists and public figures who had been critical of the country’s security services or had made other statements the site considered unpatriotic. On December 10, the database announced it was shutting down its servers to public access, but it noted some officials would continue to have access.
There were reports of cyberattacks on journalists who reported on corruption. For example, according to the Institute for Mass Information, for several weeks in February and March, journalists with the investigative anticorruption television program Schemes reported repeated attempts to hack their social network and messenger accounts.
Human rights groups and journalists who were critical of Russian involvement in the Donbas region and the occupation of Crimea reported their websites were subjected to cyberattacks, such as coordinated denial of service incidents and unauthorized attempts to obtain information from computers, as well as coordinated campaigns of “trolling” and harassment on social media.
In its annual Freedom on the Net report published in November, Freedom House concluded that internet freedom had improved very slightly after two years of decline. It noted in particular that “the online information landscape is partly censored, with the government blocking Russian and proxy websites, and the Russia-led forces blocking Ukrainian websites in the areas under their control. Implementation of these blocks, however, was lax on both sides, and the digital environment is otherwise vibrant, despite efforts by political actors to manipulate debates through disinformation and paid content. These efforts intensified ahead of the presidential election, held in March and April. Arrests of users were commonplace, primarily as an extension of continuing hostilities between the government in Kyiv and Russian-led forces, as were attacks against online journalists. Adding to these challenges, persistent cyberattacks continued to constrain internet freedom.”
There were reports that the government prosecuted individuals for their posts on social media. For example, according to press reports, on April 16, the SBU searched the home of a man in Odesa, whom they alleged had written posts supporting Russia-led forces in eastern Ukraine on social media, and seized computer equipment, mobile devices, and material with banned communist symbols. He was charged with “encroachment on territorial integrity.”