Belarus feels the impact of Internet regulation three months after passage of a new law. Users and providers alike have experienced privacy issues and censorship concerns. Belarusian journalist Iryna Vidanava investigates the impact of Decree #60
As fall arrives, it is children who are usually nervous about the first day of school. But on this September 1st, many adult Belarusians worried about the fate of their favourite news and information websites. The official "Day of Knowledge" was also the first day on which the state's Decree #60, in which all online information sources, networks and Internet systems hosted inside the country will be forced to register, would apply to websites. But three months after the controversial law came into force, there are still more rumours and hearsay than facts and figures regarding its real toll on media freedom.
Why is the accounting still unclear? The decree has been implemented piecemeal. The authorities decided to postpone parts of its enforcement until September 1st because neither the government nor the country's IT infrastructure was ready to review the requests of thousands of websites that applied for registration and to physically host them in Belarus.
According to the BBC Worldwide Monitoring, a total of 31,943 applications were filed by data processing centres, communications channels and websites by June 15th; 22,768 were approved and the rest were returned for revision. Of the more than 25,000 website applications, approximately 8,000 were not approved.
Independent online media have chosen different strategies to deal with the new law. Some hurried to be registered and hosted at home; others have stayed on their foreign servers and in their foreign domains, waiting to see what will happen if they do not comply.
The rules themselves remain vague. Formally, they only apply to those online resources, which are carrying out commercial activities in Belarus, and most independent news websites don't make any profit. As well, online versions of registered print periodicals are exempted from further registration. Despite the outcry from independent media practitioners and rumours of "black lists" of online resources, no websites, not even those of the hardcore opposition, have been blocked.
Nevertheless, some signals are troubling. In mid-August, Internet service providers (ISPs) reported that they had already purchased and installed the equipment and software necessary for Internet filtering, at their own expense. At the moment, the equipment is for manual filtering, but even this type costs at least $100,000. If the regime mandates that the ISPs install automatic filtering, the costs will be much higher.
Private ISPs, unable to increase prices for their services due to the artificially low prices - digital dumping - dictated the state monopoly "Beltelekom," are likely to reduce the quality and quantity of their services to recoup costs. So at the end of the day, it will be the users who will pay the price, both literally and figuratively, for the regime's Internet regulation.
Since July 1, 2010, it has been possible to use Internet cafes only after presenting an ID. Clearly concerned about "big brother," the number of users has already decreased by 30 to 50 percent. As a result, many Internet cafes have gone bankrupt and their owners say that Decree #60 has destroyed this business. The impact of this intimidation is clear and the economic toll is limiting Internet access.
What is less obvious and noticeable is the hidden impact the law is having on privacy. While those who do not want to their online activities tracked can simply stop going to Internet cafes, many Internet users do not yet understand that the decree requires ISPs to maintain records of the traffic of all IP addresses, including those at home and at work, for one year. As a result, the state can request information about the Internet use of any user. It can also force ISPs to block access to any website within 24 hours of being requested to do so by a government regulator.
In the past, members of the political and civic opposition understood that the regime was monitoring their online and off-line communications. As a result, trainings on computer safety and secure communications regularly took place. The new decree, however, requires a shift in approach. In addition to improved computer security, activists must now become more familiar with circumvention tools that will allow them to avoid the government's attempts to censor the Internet.
Getting around the filters
Sadly, it is not only activists who now must be safer online. The decree affects all Internet users, so the general public must also become more safety savvy. The more people who regularly use circumvention tools, the harder it will be for the government to pinpoint media activists who are reporting on politically sensitive issues, especially in the run up to the presidential elections.
As a result of governments' attempts to censor the Internet around the world, there are a growing number of circumvention tools and platforms, which make them available. Many activists and ordinary citizens are, however, intimidated by the seriousness implied by the term "circumvention" and the technical challenges of using these programs.
To help a broader community learn about, feel comfortable with, and employ circumvention tools, a team of activists has created a "how to" series of comics and posted them online at www.superpeif.com. These easy-to-understand strips offer, "online security for dummies," explaining the basics of how to be safe on the Internet. Available in English, Russian and Belarusian, they employ a fun format that offers simple answers to the security issues that ordinary people face in their everyday, online life.
Attack on the media
Are such tools necessary? Yes, in fact they are long overdue. In Belarus, the government's first attack against the online opposition took place in 2005. Since then, new media activists have been jailed and forced to leave the country, and websites have been blocked. The new Internet decree is only one part of broader strategy of the ongoing, systematic repression against independent media, both traditional and online.
In 2010, the offices of two leading independent news sources, the newspaper Narodnaya Volya and the opposition website Charter 97, were raided and their equipment confiscated. Oleg Bebenin, a founder of Charter 97 and a prominent journalist, may have paid the ultimate price. Frequently persecuted by the regime, his corpse was discovered by family and colleagues on September 3rd. officially ruled a suicide, independent experts have offered allegations of foul play.
The government's credibility has also taken a hit. Rather than producing a decrease in the popularity of the independent media, those most at risk seem to be enjoying a growth in audience, especially online. This situation is probably due to the public's increasing appetite for objective news about the countries' presidential elections, to be held on December 19th, 2010. For example, according to the editor-in-chief of Nasha Niva (Our Field), one of the country's leading independent newspapers, the weekly's print run has increased by 14 percent over the past year and the audience of its online version (www.nn.by) has grown by 40 percent.
As the presidential elections get closer, the real costs of Decree #60 and its regulation of the Internet will become clearer. Now, as the authorities apply all the repressive aspects of the new law, media activists will need to employ more tools in order to keep the Belarusian Internet free.