JURIST Guest Columnist Johann Bihr, Director of the Press Desk for Europe and Central Asia at Reporters Without Borders, says a new Belarusian law not only limits the online freedoms of individuals, but also creates harsh penalties for Internet providers, all in a government effort to exert more control over citizens...
On January 6, Belarus's Law 317-3 took effect, tightening government control over the Internet and raising several questions. Does Law 317-3 herald the creation of a "national Internet" cut off from the rest of the world, like the one Iran is in the process of setting up? Is it a turning point in the escalation of the online censorship on which "Europe's last dictatorship" has embarked?
At first sight, neither is the case. However, the new law nonetheless backs up the existing surveillance system with powerful new weapons. It also puts the spotlight on how the Internet is controlled in the country, where news and information have been a pressing issue since the disputed reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko in December 2010. The real turning point was in February 2010 with the issue of Decree 60 at Lukashenko's instigation, which carves up what was until then the last bastion of freedom: the Internet. Its enactment has resulted in the inclusion of Belarus among countries "under surveillance" in Reporters Without Borders' annual report Internet Enemies [PDF]. The decree took effect in July 2010 and established broad control over online content; an official filtering system has been established for sites deemed dangerous and restricted access to the network.
Censorship was institutionalized at the top level with the creation of an Operational and Analytical Centre attached to the president's office. In particular, the decree created a vast identification and surveillance system that can be applied to Internet service providers and users. This system also applies to hardware such as computers and mobile phones; these must be identified by service providers who themselves are answerable to the communications ministry.
Law 317-3 is intended to impose penalties on those who break the rules. It reaffirms the duty of owners of Internet cafes and those responsible for a "shared connection" to monitor Internet users. The term "shared connection" applies mainly to computers used in offices or apartment buildings, a legacy of the Soviet era when the apartment was a basic unit of society. Those responsible for such connections who fail to record the personal details of Internet users are liable to fines of up to €100. As a result of Decree 60, every user who logs on at an Internet cafe, or by using a shared computer, must give their name and a record must be kept of their surfing history for a year. Owners of Internet cafes and shared connections are also liable to fines if they fail to block access to banned sites. The State Inspection on Electronic Communications provides a blacklist of such sites. The list is based on rulings by a number of institutions such as the Operational and Analytical Centre, the communications ministry and the public prosecutor's office.
Criteria for inclusion on the list include sites that are pornographic, sites linked to trafficking in drugs, weapons or humans, or those that contain "extremist" content, a vague notion that has been invoked to support the blocking of major independent news and information sites such as Charter97, Belaruspartisan and the blog of the humorist Yauhen Lipkovich. Blacklisted sites are consistently filtered out in government institutions and educational and cultural establishments.
Noncommercial entities seem to not be directly concerned by the last part of the law, which requires the sites of Belarusian companies to be hosted or properly registered in Belarus. For the time being, there appear to be no plans to block access to all information resources based abroad. Nevertheless, great vigilance is required in view of the vagueness of many of the law's provisions, which leave a wide margin of interpretation to the judges who must apply them.
The confusing and sometimes contradictory nature of Law 317-3 and the various texts and amendments that make up Decree 60 raise questions about how they can be applied. Some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) confess they have little idea of what they are meant to do. As for those responsible for shared connections, they must determine if they all have the ability and equipment to block access to banned sites and ascertain users' identities. The law clearly has draconian implications, but most likely we will have to wait a few months before we can start to assess it its tangible effects.
For journalists, human rights campaigners and Belarusian citizens, online security represents a major challenge. The biggest challenge and danger for now seems to be outside the framework of the law, such as cyber-attacks on independent news sites, hacking of email accounts, surveillance of Skype chats and distributed denial of service (DDoS). DDoS is an attack in which many computer systems simultaneously flood a single website with access requests, causing it to block and shut down, thereby denying the service to legitimate users. In the past few weeks, the KGB security agency has demonstrated that it has complete control of the weapons of the latest phase of the information war.
Johann Bihr joined Reporters Without Borders in March 2011. He is currently the Director of the Press Desk for Europe and Central Asia. Previously he worked in the humanitarian field in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Suggested citation: Johann Bihr, New Belarus Internet Law Denies Freedoms and Mandates Monitoring, JURIST - Hotline, Jan. 26, 2012, http://jurist.org/hotline/2012/01/johann-bihr-belarus-internet.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Leah Kathryn Sell, an assistant editor for JURIST's professional commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org