No, Belarus Is Not Cut Off From The Internet, But New Restrictions Are Still Pretty Bad

from the could-be-worse-and-probably-will-be dept

There is a lot of excitement over news that Belarus has supposedly cut itself off from the rest of the Internet, with headlines like, "It is now illegal to access any foreign website in the Republic of Belarus". Given the continuing concern over human rights in that country, this story has a certain plausibility to it. But it's worth exploring what the law in question actually says, since the situation is rather more complex than such headlines imply.

Google Translate offers quite a clear translation of the new law (original in Russian), which has two main parts. The first concerns businesses:

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, you should pay attention: if these networks, systems or resources are not available on the territory of Belarus and (or) not registered in the prescribed manner to the subjects can be applied to an administrative penalty of a fine from 10 to 30 base units.
That seems to say that all online businesses must be either located in Belarus, or registered there, which might be a problem for Amazon, say. Presumably the company could get around this if it set up a subsidiary in Belarus, and then sold goods from the site amazon.by – except for the slight problem that this domain has already been taken by a water company. However, Amazon might well decide that it is not worth the effort, and simply block all connections from Belarus.

One issue is what exactly "services" includes in the above section. If, as some have suggested, this means companies offering email, it might stop people using Gmail, unless Google also sets up an arm in the country – wisely, Google has already registered its domain in Belarus, google.by. Clearly, much depends on how the law is interpreted (and IANAL).

As for non-commercial sites like Wikipedia, say, the paragraph doesn't seem to apply at all, since it only concerns businesses. However, they may well be caught by other parts of the law:

Administrative penalty of a fine (ranging from 5 to 15 basic units) may be imposed on officials of the centers for collective use of the web services (computer clubs, Internet cafes, home networking, and other places, which provide shared access users of Internet services to Internet) in violation of legislation on the identification of client devices and users to record and store information about them, as well as Internet services rendered.

It should also restrict user access to Internet services to the information gap for distribution in accordance with the laws (the information content of which is directed to carry out extremist activities, dissemination of pornographic materials, etc.). In case of violation of requirements to restrict access to this information also applies a penalty from 10 to 30 base units.
These sections deal with Internet cafes and even "home networks" – connections shared among households. It requires users to be registered, the sites they visit recorded, and the usual censorship of pornographic and "extremist" materials. It's easy to imagine even sites like Wikipedia being branded as such (after all, it happened in the UK), and thus being on the blacklist.

So while it is by no means true that Belarus has made accessing all sites outside the country illegal, it has certainly made it risky, if not impossible, to buy stuff on external sites. Worse, it confirms that Internet users must be spied upon, and "forbidden" sites must be blocked; taken together, these new measures allow the government of Belarus to exert extremely tight control over Internet users in the country. Moreover, with these systems in place, severing Belarus from the Internet for real would be relatively easy, if its government decided to take that extreme step.

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  1. identicon
    Harrison Weber, 3 Jan 2012 @ 12:33pm

    More thoughts

    Glyn, I'm glad you shared your thoughts. I added this note to the original piece, and I felt it was worth sharing:

    There’s grey area in the law, because all websites provide a service. Under this interpretation, most foreign websites can be immediately blocked, requiring outside companies to develop some sort of local branch in Belarus — that is, if they ever considered opening a branch in a country that is not exactly free or democratic.

    It doesn’t seem to be as simple as registering a .by domain either, because “registered in the prescribed manner to the subjects” could call for local business licenses. As for sites like Wikipedia, the statement by the LoC says that any “place” that offers access to the internet “might” be found guilty. To be clear: You might be found guilty by an authoritarian regime, just like SOPA might be enforced by Hollywood.

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