Ukraine’s parliament has moved a step closer to giving the Security Service the right to block websites without a court order, supposedly in the name of national security. 

The draft bill in question was condemned as following Russia in trying to restrict the internet and freedom of speech when it first appeared in July 2017, and the fact that it gained enough support on June 21 to be placed on the parliamentary agenda is worrying, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group reports.

Bill No. 6688 would allow for temporary blocking or restriction of access to information resources and/or internet portals without a court order, merely on the authority of a prosecutor, investigator or the National Council for Security and Defense.  Providers who did not comply would face a system of fines, from 1% of their yearly profit the first time to 5% if repeated.

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One of the key fears is that the bill would give dangerous power to investigators, prosecutors and judges to arbitrarily determine whether certain information on a particular website was prohibited. The websites could be blocked altogether for 48 hours merely at the decision of an investigator or prosecutor.  After that, a court order would be required, but the application for such a court order would be considered immediately, and could be without the person suspected of an offence being present. 

It is particularly disturbing that no timeframe is envisaged for the court ban.

There was strong condemnation of the bills in July 2017 from the then Human Rights Ombudsman, Valeria Lutkovska and both media and human rights organizations.

Ukraine’s most prominent media organizations and unions stated that both draft bills jeopardized the free development of the internet in Ukraine. The authors of the statement, endorsed by the Institute for Mass Information, the National Union of Journalists, Detector Media, and other organizations, stressed that the government does have the right to impose certain restrictions on freedom of the internet given the military conflict underway in Donbas.  The bills proposed, however, went far further and were imitating the methods and approaches used by the aggressor state - the Russian Federation to put clamps on the internet.

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Calls to withdraw the bills were ignored, however the first attempt to get No. 6688 onto the parliamentary agenda on July 13, 2017, failed, and the issue has remained back-shelved until now, when the bill on June 21 was accepted for parliament consideration.

Views vary as to why there is this new flurry of activity, especially with the elections looming over the horizon.  Prominent journalist and MP Ihor Lutsenko believes that the bill has now been placed on the parliamentary agenda thanks to “a deal between BPP and People’s Front”.  Not all agree that there has been such a political deal, but Lutsenko is not the only one viewing this bill as a way of introducing censorship into the internet. 

A joint statement signed by Oleksandr Pavlichenko of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union and Yevhen Zakharov of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group condemns the bill as a violation of freedom of expression, as enshrined in Ukraine’s Constitution and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

They note that draft bill 6688 is aimed at providing legislative regulation for measures on countering cyber-crime, including technological terrorism via cyber-attacks, but assert that the bill dangerously broadens the concept of "technological terrorism". 

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The fear is that the definition could be abused, while any online discussion of government decisions aimed at influencing decision-making might be labeled "technological terrorism."

If this were to be the case, it would constitute a grave attack on the media’s crucial role in drawing attention to the errors and omissions of the authorities, and an encroachment of the right to freedom of speech.

UHHRU and KHPG believe that the bill would effectively initiate state censorship over the internet.  Like the media organizations, they stress that restrictions of the internet may be required during times of military conflict, but the moves must be proportionate.  They should not copy the form and methods used by the authoritarian Russian regime, and look more like an axe than a scalpel.