Ukraine: United to protect human rights, or pirates’ rights?
The attempt by authorities to shutdown Ukraine’s largest file-sharing resource, ex.ua, has caused, perhaps, the greatest mass protest since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
The arrest and conviction of the opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, the changes to the Constitution, the expansion of presidential powers under President Viktor Yanukovych, the signing of the agreement extending Russian military presence in Crimea until 2042 – none of these events provoked such a unified outbreak of popular anger. Ukrainian society has been silently enduring egregious violations of the rights of individuals and entire social groups. But suddenly, bingo, here is an explosion!
The users of social networking have united and organized an unprecedented attack on government websites, which was later dubbed the “People’s DDoS”. Instructions spread via blogs and passed by word of mouth. A primitive method, the use of which didn’t require any special knowledge, rendered inoperative the web pages of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Security Service of Ukraine, the President and the ruling Party of Regions – one by one.
The government, which up till now did not realize the force and energy of the web users, explained that their servers were knocked down by “hackers” organized by a sinister international group called Anonymous. This was supposed to justify the vulnerability of government websites and the helplessness of intelligence services, at the same time alluding to the “hand of the West”. It is almost impossible to find consistency in this myth, since the closure of the site ex.ua and the confiscation of the resource’s servers were explained by the desire to please the West, dissatisfied with rampant piracy in Ukraine. It was at the request of U.S. software producers that police opened a criminal investigation into the publication of unlicensed copies of Windows and Photoshop on the ex.ua servers. Half of the Hollywood film catalogue could be also found on the website, available for free downloading and online viewing.
On the third day of fighting, the government took a step back: stopping the block on the domain name ex.ua, and the site resumed its work. Microsoft and Adobe disowned their claims, and the damage to the copyright owners was estimated to be a paltry $180,000 USD. It was estimated to require 4 kopecks (half of a cent) from each ex.ua user. The participants of the mass cyber-war against government websites laughed at the statements about “hackers” and celebrated their victory.
This, however, seems to be an overstatement. Shutting down the websites of the Police, Security Service and the President did not cause significant harm to the government. After all, the sites are mostly used by journalists, while for the authorities, it is an extra burden to maintain these sites and report its activities online. Most likely, Yanukovych’s team just did not want to antagonize (just a few months before parliamentary elections) a few million young active voters who regularly visit the ex.ua to get films and music.
It is a favourite method for the Party of Regions: to demonstrate compliance and willingness to follow the wishes of the electorate, first making foolish and destructive decisions, and then cancelling them after protests. However, the ex.ua case does not seem to be planned for political PR. During the two years Yanukovych and his political party have been in power, many businessmen and companies have been experiencing “shake-downs” – attacks organized by law enforcement, tax and judicial authorities. Their goal was to force the owner to transfer all or part of their business to structures protected by the authorities.
That is what happened to “ProstoPrint” a company which was accused of infringing UEFA’s copyright. Police did not even deny that it deliberately used the company as a fall guy by ordering that production cease of items labelled with Euro 2012 emblems. Dennis Oleynikov, the company owner is now hiding with his family in Croatia. He considers the shake-downs to be a political act – according to him the reason could be that “ProstoPrint” was producing T-shirts with slogans offensive to Yanukovych. Now Oleynikov is a well-known public figure, speaking on behalf of the middle class who are disappointed with the government’s use of arbitrary power. He intends to participate in parliamentary elections and to establish a fund that will help business people to emigrate from Ukraine.
Ex.ua owners did not have to flee from Ukraine, as they are citizens of Latvia. However, the coordinated raid is the most likely version of police interest in the site. Alas, the organizers of the operation did not work out in advance of the possible consequences, failing to realise the popularity of the file hosting service. A year earlier, the RIAA included the Ukrainian site in the top-25 of the largest pirate sites around the world. However, earning a lot from advertising, the company publicly declared its desire to become law-biding, pay royalties and gradually get rid of illegal content. The leadership of ex.ua, together with a considerable number of the internet activists, propose to lay the blame of copyright infringement not on the site itself, but on those users who downloaded the unlicensed audio, video and software from the server. The company is even ready to share with the investigation the IP addresses of offenders, although this decision is not supported by the internet community.
It seems that Ukraine is finally ready to participate in one of the major global debates of our time – how should content be distributed in the digital age? Only several years ago internet usage was less common among Ukrainians, especially outside the capital and largest cities, and online payment facilities were available only to a few. However, decreasing costs and the development of networking technologies, including mobile technology, the growing popularity of social networks and other means of online communication do have their effect. A third of the adult population has access to the web now, and most of these people do not waive the benefits of unlimited access to unlicensed content. There are not many conscious supporters of the anti-copyright ideas among the defenders of ex.ua, and the local equivalent of the “pirate party” – Internet-Party of Ukraine – is marginal. An average Ukrainian, downloading some film or music album from ex.ua or torrents, does not bother to think about the morality or legitimacy of his or her action.
Until now it was the norm and there was a little public discussion on this topic. There are no repressive measures on violators of copyright (as those provided in the odious SOPA and PIPA) in Ukraine. Attempts to prosecute people and companies for using unlicensed software are usually stopped by bribes. The state has signed international agreements on copyright protection, but does nothing for their implementation. Having made such a painful mistake with ex.ua, authorities will surely not impinge upon their citizen’s freedom of piracy – at least until the end of elections. It is clear now: you can take any of the rights and freedoms from humble Ukrainians, but only if you do not interfere with free movies being watched online.
Meanwhile, the discussions that are continuing in the Ukrainian segment of Facebook reveal more and more often pleas to think about whether the desire to integrate into Europe can be combined with the desire to continue the unrestricted consumption of free content and to not care about copyright. These rare voices have little chance of changing the situation. And the arbitrary Ukrainian authorities have even less chance, as they are certainly not aware of the specific character of the internet.
Translated by Olena Dmytryk
Otar Dovzhenko is a Lviv-based journalist, blogger, and media expert, former editor in chief for telekritika.ua,a Ukrainian news site specialising in media market and freedom of speech. Since 2012 he has been an associate professor of journalism at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv