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Is Belarus Really Cutting Out The "Foreign Internet?"

BY Antonella Napolitano | Wednesday, January 4 2012

Photo by covilha/ Flickr

At the end of last year the government of Belarus issued a law that will regulate the use of foreign websites, with a particular focus on business activities. The law will be effective starting Jan. 6.

Some commentators believe that these measures will block people in Belarus from accessing websites hosted outside the country. This interpretation was quickly reprised by many media outlets and labeled as a block of the foreign Internet by the Belarusian government — but the situation may be different. English-speaking commenters, with limited access to translations of the law, are struggling to suss out exactly what the law does to Internet access in Belarus.

What we do know is that the law implements a past presidential order that Internet freedom activists had previously said would restrict people in Belarus from reaching foreign websites, and is the latest act by a government that activists have accused in the past of taking steps to restrict speech online, especially speech from its political opposition. Regardless of whether or not the law restricts the "foreign" Internet, analysts suggest that it will certainly give the Belarusian government greater control of Internet access inside that country.

The official note announcing the publication of the law said that "business entities engaged in activities on the sale of goods, works and services in the Republic of Belarus with the use of information networks, systems and resources with an Internet connection" can face a fine if their "networks, systems or resources are not available on the territory of Belarus and (or) not registered in the prescribed manner". The fine has been estimated to the equivalent of 125 US dollars.
On the National Legal Internet Portal of Belarus (the main government resource on tech policy) you can also read that the law should restrict user access to websites "the information content of which is directed to carry out extremist activities, dissemination of pornographic materials, etc.".

One of the first comment on the law can be found on the Library of Congress' website. The author, Director of the Global Legal Research Center Peter Roudik (a Russian native speaker) argued that this law imposes heavy restrictions for Belarusian citizens and residents who access and use foreign websites. Roudik also wrote:

Also, the Law authorizes the government to establish and update the list of banned websites to which access should be blocked by Internet providers. The Law mentions pornographic websites and those that contain information of an extremist nature as examples of those to be blocked. [...] 

Technology journalist Cyrus Farivar had a different take after he interviewed Keir Giles, the director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, an Oxford-based non-profit research center that provides analysis on Russia and the region. According to Farivar's account, Giles, a Russian speaker, read the Russian text of the law and commented:

The only people who are banned from using foreign services altogether are commercial entities, and then only for use in their business. Which would be a bit of a blow if you run a business, but it’s administered by the tax police, so you can see why they’re doing it – revenue collection not censorship. They’re closing loopholes by specifying in the legal process exactly what the crime is and what the penalty is.

Giles' take is that the law has been misrepresented by the Library of Congress comment. Farivar reports that later he also added that the “list of banned content is in Art. 8. Not a word about whether websites are foreign or not.”

And so it is that two Russian speakers are providing very different interpretations of the same text.

The law implements the Decree of the President of the Republic of Belarus No. 60, titled “On Measures to Improve the Use of the National Segment of the Internet.” The decree was signed by President Lukashenko in February 2010 and came into force in July 2010.

While I could not read the original text of the 2011 law in Belarusian Russian language, mentions of the 2010 decree can be found in a 2011 report by Freedom House on Freedom of the Net in Belarus.
The document - that labels Belarusians as "not free" when it comes to Internet freedom - stated that, according to the decree, "all legal persons’ sites in the .by domain are now obliged to use Belarusian hosting and adds more on how Internet service providers will be involved". The report also noted:

Presidential Decree No. 60 of 2010 introduced for the first time mechanisms by which ISPs are required to block access to restricted information, such as pornography or material that incites violence, when it is sought by users. Enforcement of the decree is overseen by the presidential administration’s Operational and Analytical Center (OAC). [...]
In June 2010, the Ministry of Telecommunications and the OAC issued a regulation that calls for the creation of two lists cataloging URLs of all websites that should be blocked; one list is open to the public, whereas the other list is accessible only by ISPs.

The report also said that "this rule does not apply to sites belonging to physical persons. However, a physical person’s site that is hosted on a national hosting provider, including internet resources providing free hosting, is subject to compulsory registration carried out by the ISP."
Freedom House also suggests that the presidential decree signaled an administration in Belarus with a mind to forcibly controlling the political conversation online in that country::

Presidential Decree No. 60 was only a prelude to suspected blocking and technical hijacking of independent and opposition websites that occurred on December 19, 2010 the date of presidential elections, and the following day. 

For example, the sites of the news outlets Charter97 and Belarus Partisan were temporarily inaccessible during the two day period. Internet users were also sporadically unable to access a host of international websites such as Facebook, LiveJournal, and YouTube.

The decree was also analyzed in a commentary  made by Andrei Richter, Director of the Media Law and Policy
Institute in Moscow and a mass media law professor at Moscow State University. The analysis was commissioned by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the world's largest regional security organization, which focuses its work on conflict prevention and crisis management.

Richter notes the ambiguity of some definitions in the formulation of the law:

Another problem with this regulation is that the definitions of types of harmful and illegal information set forth in the Belarus legislation are very ambiguous. They are not formulated with sufficient precision and do not permit a citizen to regulate his/her behavior and to foresee the possible consequences of a particular situation. For example, there is a restriction on “promulgating [any] acts prohibited by the law”. Such definitions give the authorities extremely broad powers to act at their own discretion.

Such an ambiguity combined with the involvement of a number of control agencies including "organs of internal affairs, taxation, public security organs of State Control Committee of Belarus" (as you can read in the note of the 2011 law) give the impression of a significant discretional power of the government in handling violations and eventually creating a blacklist.

Suspects of censorship can then easily find supporters, given the number of human rights violations registered in the country.

So, while this is not equivalent to a shutdown of the "foreign Internet", as some commenters have said, the strong restrictions can clearly ending up in giving great control to the government of Belarus in managing access to it.