On 6 January, Belarus’s Law 317-3 came into effect, restricting Belarusians’ Internet freedom with censorship similar to that of China. The new legislation implements Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko’s Decree 60 from February 2010: “Improvements to the Usage of the National Segment of the Internet”.
In Decree 60, Lukashenko stated his plans to increase governmental control over the Internet by giving the government power to monitor users and restrict access to certain websites.
Already, the decree has led to the creation of an Operational and Analytical Centre attached to the president’s office, responsible for monitoring Belorussian citizens’ online activities.
It has also created a vast identification and surveillance system which can be applied to Internet service providers (ISPs) and individual users. This system also applies to computers and mobile phones.
Under Decree 60, users must provide their full names before using a computer on a “shared connection,” officially defined as any connection found in offices, cafes, and apartment buildings. The owner of a shared connection must keep a record of each user’s browsing history for a year.
Law 317-3, which came into effect on January 6, imposes penalties on those who break these rules and postulates that intermediaries, such as ISPs or owners of shared connections must monitor the Internet traffic on their networks.
There is only one ISP in Belarus, the state-owned Beltelecom. However, the new law extends state power into the private realm: Owners of shared connections who fail to record the personal details of Internet users may face personal fines of up to €100. They may also face fines if they fail to block access to banned sites.
As a result of these regulations, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) has included Belarus on its annual report entitled “Internet Enemies,” a compilation of countries that restrict access to the Internet in an attempt to quell free political expression.
RWB states that Law 317-3 is leading to the “government’s escalating control of the Internet [by] adding new weapons of repression.” This argument is based on RWB findings included in its report, which demonstrate that “nearly three million Belarusians actively surf the Web [because] dissidents, independent journalists and the civil society as a whole have found the Internet to be a space for discussion and exchanges of opinion that no longer exists in the traditional media.”
Belarus has a history of government attempt to restrict free speech over the Internet. In August 2007, Andrei Klimau, the first opposition activist in the country to be prosecuted for posting an article on the Internet, was given a two-year prison term for “inciting the overthrow of the regime.”
RWB’s report further states that there are frequent cyber attacks against independent sites such as Charter 97, Belarus’s most frequently-visited opposition website.
Similarly, Andrey Bastunets, the deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, belives the law as being a clear violation of freedom of expression.
Note that Belarus is not a stellar example of a democratic state to begin with. Lukashenko has been in office since 1994. His most recent election victory in December 2010 was accompanied by widespread accusations of fraud and foul play, bringing protesters out onto the streets. Lukashenko responded to these protests with a violent police crackdown and the imprisonment of presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Nikolai Statkevic.
Following this physical restraint of public expression, virtual restraint through Internet regulation and censorship fits the picture seamlessly.
However, Law 317-3 can also be seen as being an example of the growing worldwide awareness of Internet freedom. After the controversty over the SOPA in America, as well as the case of MegaUpload, the public is developing a realization that it must not take freedom of speech on the Internet for granted, and must fight to maintain this freedom.