The last week a wave of publications about increasing Internet control in Belarus has spread across the Western Internet. It has come back to the Belarusian segment in translations suggesting that “the citizens of the small country will no longer be able to use the foreign websites as they will be fined for that” and the Internet is close to being completely closed off.
This overreaction has dominated the Western media and definitely influenced decision making about Belarus. But the reality is that no change in Internet access has been detected by regular users.
Under the reason for “closing down the Internet,” changes to the article 22.16 of the Code of Administrative Offenses had been made which have took effect on 6 January. However, detailed analyses of the notorious article has identified no trace of any fines for the citizens surfing foreign sites. The changes formalize the restrictions imposed two years ago in the Decree 60, which is the foundation for tightening Internet restrictions, and have merely identified the exact fines for violating specific prohibitions in the decree. As a reminder, Decree 60 identified the following activities as illegal:
1. For the Belarusian businesses and entrepreneurs – offering goods and services in Belarus using foreign hosting or domain names and having no legal registration in Belarus;
2 For the Internet cafes and public Internet access places – not registering the users coming to use the Internet.
The decree has also requires all MSPs and ISPs to record the activities of users and provide 24/7 access to these records for the security services. It has also says that a restricted list of sites will be created to block access from governmental or public institutions (including universities). This list had already been created, however no one knows which sites are included on that list since it is not public. And still, some students and public institutions workers have reported that the Charter97.org website–the most popular independent information website in Belarus–is still reachable from their places of work and study. Sites on the restricted list may only be blocked from inside the public institutions; and there had been cases of sporadic blockades by some telecom companies such as Life MSP
Thus, the changes to the article 22.16 have just identified the exact fines for the entrepreneurs using foreign sites to deliver goods and services to the Belarusian citizens and for the Internet cafes that fail to register the visitors. Nothing else and no sign of any further restrictions on regular users have been reported.
The rule about fining entrepreneurs for using the foreign site to offer services and goods for Belarusians is the least clear one. It is formulated so generally that Google and Amazon may also be fined for offering search services and goods respectively, if they don’t set up a Google.by or Amazon.by domain, undergo a proper registration in Belarus, and establish an enterpise here. Wikipedia.org may be fined for offering information services as it is not registered in Belarus and is located god knows where.
However one can imagine the reaction of those giants to the potential attenpts of the Belarusian government to enforce those fines. If any foreign enterprise like Microsoft even has a local representation, it will be easier for them to close it down and withdraw to Ukraine or Russia: the Belarusian market is insignificant in size on the global scale. Establishing a physical representation of an foreign Internet business in Belarus is something fantastic: hosting is of low quality and expensive, domains are damn expensive, the procedure for registration and tax reporting is bulky and takes a lot of time.
Thus, the target audience of this law are the local entrepreneurs who completely depend on this state. For the foreign companies it matters nothing: Amazon.com won’t even see a decrease in traffic if their site is blocked for Belarusians. But Belarusians will see that they are not able to use the resources they like. And how ever muchthe government is authocratic, they still want to pretend everything looks European. Closing everything apart from the BY zone is something which will concern EVERY citizen of Belarus – and this is something the state wants to avoid.
There is no info yet whether these fines, which range up to 140 dollars, have already been handed out.
In the country, these changes have not gone unnoticed for the visitors of the social networks’ Belarusian social and political communities like Charter97.org and Belaruspartisan.org, the two most influential and well-visited independent websites (together they account for 120k unique visitors from Belarus daily), and for visitors of other independent media.
The information about the changes to administrative code had been presented to the visitors in the same apocalyptic variant as mentioned in the beginning of the article, as if signifies the end to the Belarusian Internet. As for most Internet users, this info has gone unnoticed as the most active communities in the social networks unite one and the same people who are also the readers of charter97.org. The number of the socially active people has not grown in Belarus despite the crisis, as far as I can tell. These political communities fail to recruit the mass users who remain fragmented in there own communities not related to politics.
These changes mean nothing to a regular user. There are miriad other fines for individuals in Belarus. In the country where a one-handed person may be found guilty of clapping, one don’t need to invent a law to escalate repressions.
Photo courtesy Flickr user jared