A Click Away from the KGB: Internet Revolution in Belarus?

Can the Internet facilitate political mobilization? The so-called Twitter and Facebook revolutions in Moldova, Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt suggest that it can.  Whatever its limits, technology enables people to express their discontent safer and louder, to gather larger protests, and to better inform the outside world of the injustice perpetrated in authoritarian states.

Given Belarus’ comparable Internet penetration rate of 27 percent (24 percent in Egypt and 34 percent in Egypt) one would think the democratic transition in Belarus is just a click away. But the Belarusian government and security agencies are mastering the new technologies with no less enthusiasm than the dissidents. 

Minsk is not only populating the Web with cheerful statistics and hymns to its leader, but also blocks dissenting web sites, detains sturborn bloggers, and prevents disagreeable content from appearing on the social networking sites. If back in the day many independent sites would shut down voluntarily to protest Belarus’ media laws (as happened in June 2008, for instance), today it is no longer necessary thanks to the zealous governmental officials who shut them down with or without the law. The crackdowns on the blogosphere and social networking sites have become especially heavy-handed after the December 2010 presidential election.

Just last week, the Belarusian police began a campaign against the administrators of a number of opposition groups on the networking site Vkontakte. On June 3, they arrested and later released Sergei Pauliukevich and Dmitri Niafiodau. Pauliukevich’s group “We stand for great Belarus” had over 120,000 registered members,  and its “Millions March” event had gathered over 40,000 potential attendees. Niafiodau’s group "Revolution via the Social Network" was also very popular; his movement “Dvizhenie budushego” (Movement of the Future) attracted over 200,000 members. On June 4, the Belarusian authorities also detained opposition activist Ivan Stasyuk, asking him to stop posting on social networking sites.

The Internet in Belarus is regulated by Presidential Decree No 60, in force since July 2010. Officially aimed at guarding citizens’ interests in the information field, the decree establishes web content filters and requires Internet service providers to ensure registration of information networks, systems and resources and to trace and store the identity of each user. According to the decree, the Center of Operations and Analysis, subordinated to the President's office, is responsible for monitoring content before it appears online. The web site ordered for closure should be shut down within 24 hours. 

Among the recently forbidden content are sites such as charter97.org and belaruspartisan.org. The General Prosecutor’s Office of Belarus blocked these sites when they attempted to gather a demonstration on Belarus’ Freedom Day in March 2011. The innocent and the apolitical also fall prey to the authorities. For instance, when Minsk blocked the blog by Evgeny Lipkovich  hosted by LiveJournal, nearly three hundred other blogs sharing Lipkovich’s IP address were inadvertently shut down.

Unsurprisingly, in April 2011, the Freedom House report on the Internet freedom found Belarus not free. According to the report, “The authorities blocked international connections to the SMPT port 465 and HTTPS port 443, preventing users from securely posting content on social media sites like Facebook, and sending secure messages through 
Gmail. In addition, the government created fake mirror websites to divert users from 
accessing independent news sources, and launched distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) 
attacks against the opposition sites.” 

Belarus also continues to appear on the annual list Internet enemies compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Minsk is mentioned alongside such countries as Burma, Cuba and North Korea. Belarus’s violations come at the time when Internet access is increasingly accepted as a basic human right by the broader international community. Of course, access to the Internet would be only one of many human rights that Minsk violates.

VC

Volha Charnysh is an analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre, the Executive Editor of Belarus Digest and a PhD Candidate in Government at Harvard University.

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