You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

A Last Word on Internet "Blocking" in Belarus

BY Antonella Napolitano | Wednesday, January 11 2012

Photo by El Bingle/ Flickr

Here, finally, definitively, is what has happened to the Internet in Belarus:

A new law obliges Belarusian businesses that use the Internet to sell goods or services inside Belarus to host those services on servers physically inside Belarus, bringing that country's businesses more closely under the control of its government. So as an argument now rages in the United States about how to regulate access to foreign websites for purposes of copyright protection, in Belarus, the discussion focuses on the particulars of how to regulate its domestic Internet — which one law blogger says is for tax purposes.

This obligation, though, does not apply to entrepreneurs doing business outside the country, says Valery Tsepkalo, Director of Belarus High-Tech Park, a national initiative that provides incentives for IT business: “if a Belarusian company has been providing software development commissioned by foreign customers or sells software products developed outside the territory of the Republic of Belarus, there are no specific requirements for the placement of these systems.”

That provision went into effect Jan. 6, as part of a law that only contains administrative information on fines and other details; the main law remains Decree N.60, which went into effect in July 2010.

After a week of analysis and articles, there is probably little conversation left around the Belarusian law that allegedly could have blocked the foreign Internet in the "White Russia" (as the country was  called when it was part of the Russian Empire).

The limited access to the original law, written in Russian, sparkled interpretations that conflicted one with the another. I decided to dig deeper by trying to translate the law and asking more information to the Belarusian Ministry of Telecommunications.

The results of the research state that the law is far from restricting the use of the Internet for citizens, while concerns on data protection still remain. Anyway, the heaviest limitations are directed to Belarusian entrepreneurs. 

The law does in fact introduce an obligation of registration for Belarusian entrepreneurs that sell goods, work or provide services with the use of Internet services within the state: they are now obliged to use Internet resources whose servers are physically located in Belarus.

It has to be said the law that became effective last January 6th contains only administrative information on fines and other details: the main law remains Decree N.60, that came into force in July 2010.

This fact is important if we consider that the claim of a block of the foreign Internet rose just a few days ago. LawAndIt, a blog focused on Belarusian IT law and telecom news, notes that this "has not brought any radical changes to Belarusian online market or heavy limitations of human rights and freedoms". On the blog you can also read more on the reason for confusion, due to an ambiguity in some definitions:

The main reason for confusion is Clause 2 of the Edict, obliging websites to host its content on servers in Belarus, as the wording of the Clause 2 is very ambiguous: “Activity on selling goods, performing works or rendering services on the territory of the Republic of Belarus with use of information networks, systems and resources connected to Internet shall be conducted by legal entities, their branches and representative offices, established in accordance with the legislation of the Republic of Belarus, located in the Republic of Belarus … with use of information networks, systems and resources located (hosted) in the Republic of Belarus and duly registered”.

Belarus Digest, a US-based online magazine that aims to provide non-partisan analysis of Belarus-related events, explains more on the motivation for the creation of such a law:

It appears that the main motivation behind the rule is to combat tax evasion which was very common amongst Belarusian internet stores until recently. Because credit cards are not widely used in the country, most goods on Belarusian Internet shops are sold for cash and it was difficult for authorities to track those purchases and collect taxes. Although the effectiveness of this rather Draconian method to combat tax evasion is questionable, it was certainly not directed against dissidents. 

Of course it can be argued that this regulation limits the freedom of online business, and, in perspective, can reduce investments and international business. Anyway, foreign Internet services like Amazon or Google do not seem to be affected by such a law, contrary to the interpretation given by Peter Roudik on the Library of Congress' website.

There has also been much talking about the creation of a blacklist of websites whose access would be restricted by the law: the blacklist does actually exists but applies only to government authorities and organs, and educational and cultural institutions. It can be extended to citizens on their voluntary and personal request.

Much ado about nothing? Mostly, so it seems.

After research and comparisons, it can be concluded that by no means this law can be defined as "cutting off the foreign Internet". Doubts raised by OSCE and Freedom House (referred to the 2010 Decree) that we reported last week remain untouched. 

The most concerning side of it is related to personal data access and control: last week I noted that the involvement of a number of control agencies including "organs of internal affairs, taxation, public security organs of State Control Committee of Belarus" gave the impression of a significant discretional power of the government in handling violations. 

LawAndIt blog confirms this view and points out more:

The Edict provides the closed list of subjects which have access to personal information of users, in particular, organs pursuing criminal investigation, courts, taxation and control organs, however, it does not require court order or warrant to access personal information, which is needed, for example, in Germany, according to national laws implementing the Directive . That means that listed above organs have unlimited access to personal data which causes reasonable concerns.  

Unreliable procedure of data retention and lack of guarantees of privacy are subjects of current concern in Belarus. On the one hand, there is a real threat of monitoring of opposition and opponents to political regime for the purpose of subsequent repressions; on the other hand, there is no adequate Personal Data Protection Law in Belarus, except the Law on Information, Informatization and Protection of Information which provides only general framework for personal data protection. Privacy guarantees are not well developed and further elaboration of data protection legislation is urgently needed in order to safeguard privacy of the Internet.