The Ukrainian authorities’ decision to close a popular file-sharing service has almost provoked a revolution on the local Internet. Following a crackdown on ex.ua, which is Ukraine’s most popular source of pirated videos and music, hackers flattened government websites – while the local media and Internet users poured scorn on the government’s clumsy handling of the problem of Internet piracy. The state has had to back down. Ex.ua has resumed its work, although an investigation into its activities is continuing. This shows that it would be difficult for a government technologically retarded and deeply mistrusted by the people to eradicate computer piracy.
Kyiv police closed ex.ua on January 31, after raiding its server rooms and seizing servers with some 6,000 terabytes of information. The interior ministry said it opened a criminal case against ex.ua over copyright violations following complaints from the international software companies Microsoft, Adobe and Graphisoft. The ministry said the company managers could face up to five years in prison. However, ex.ua representatives claimed that they had signed agreements with copyright owners, so there had been no violations (Interfax-Ukraine, UNIAN, January 31).
Microsoft-Ukraine’s representatives denied that they prompted the crackdown on ex.ua, but said that as ex.ua has long been known as a pirate website, Microsoft considered its suspension natural (Interfax-Ukraine, February 1). Ex.ua’s lawyers said it was only Adobe that officially complained about the violations. In particular, five users uploaded pirated copies of Adobe’s programs on the website. The interior ministry said this was only one episode in the fight against computer piracy, as some 600 criminal cases were referred to the courts last year alone (Kommersant-Ukraine, February 3; Interfax-Ukraine, February 4).
However, no previous case had provoked such a wave of indignation on the Ukrainian Internet and in the media as the closure of ex.ua. Its content has been easy to download and was used by everyone from Ukrainian teenagers to intellectuals for years. Also, the crackdown came at a wrong moment. The popularity of the government is very low ahead of the October parliamentary election, as opinion polls demonstrate. It transpires from discussions on Internet forums and social networks that average Ukrainian Internet users, the plurality of whom are educated young professionals, do not accept that “the bunch of thieves” in power can teach ordinary people that it is wrong to steal intellectual property.
A backlash followed immediately. The websites of the presidential office, the cabinet of ministers, parliament, the central bank, the security service and the ruling Party of Regions were put out by DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks from multiple computers on February 1. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s Facebook page was inaccessible on the same day due to spam. The interior ministry’s website suffered most, flattened by DDoS attacks in the evening of February 3 and was not accessible for at least a week. Meanwhile, hackers made available scores of files from the ministry’s server to Internet audiences (Ukrainska Pravda, February 2-5). The website Ukrainska Pravda quoted an anonymous representative of a hacker group on February 2, as claiming that some 500 professionals were taking part in the attack aided by up to 300,000 volunteers. They had no leader and were “waiting for help from comrades in the US,” the source claimed.
The Ukrainian government had to back down. On February 2, the interior ministry said it recalled its request for the domain registrar to close ex.ua, as there had been “no sufficient grounds” for the closure. At the same time, the police said the investigation would continue (Interfax-Ukraine, February 2). Ex.ua resumed its work on February 3, although many files were unavailable for downloading. The ministry complained that the sympathies of the media and Internet community were “on the side of the pirates and criminals,” and admitted that it had not expected such a public outcry (Kommersant-Ukraine, February 3). The crackdown on ex.ua may provoke a wave of anti-Americanism. Channel 5 reported on February 4 that the US had reportedly demanded that ex.ua be shut down during a recent visit to Washington by the Finance Minister, Valery Khoroshkovsky, who tried to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The interior ministry has had to deny reports that ex.ua was closed at the IMF’s request.
The attacks exposed the flaws in the government’s attitude to computer technologies and the Internet in particular. Hackers revealed and the interior ministry grudgingly confirmed that half of the programs used by the ministry were pirated (Kommersant-Ukraine, February 2). This again raised the question of legitimacy of a government that, while quietly using stolen intellectual property, wants to forbid citizens to use the same. The Director of the Cabinet of Ministers’ information department, Dmytro Andreyev, admitted that the DDoS attacks were a serious test that forced his department to review the security system used by the government (Interfax-Ukraine, February 2). Tetyana Montyan, a lawyer and public activist, said the government’s websites were so easy to crack because “money allocated for their protection was simply stolen” (Channel 5, February 3).
Meanwhile, the Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA), which represents US-based copyright industries, has asked the US Trade Representative to consider trade sanctions against Ukraine for inadequate protection of intellectual property rights. The IIPA said the problem did not receive sufficient attention from Ukraine’s government, adding that the government itself has continued to use unlicensed business software. Ukraine, according to the IIPA, has established itself as a “safe haven for copyright pirates” (www.iipa.com, February 10; Kommersant-Ukraine, February 13).