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Belarus Tightens Grip on Internet With New Data Retention Decree

Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his government are stepping up their crackdown on Internet freedom. Images mixed by Tetyana Lokot.

As part of a government effort to combat drug trafficking, Internet service providers in Belarus will soon be required to store complete records of Internet users’ browsing history.

The new policy, issued by decree by the Ministry of Communications, comes into force on January 1, 2016. Though the “anti-drug” measures are ostensibly aimed at combatting illegal drug trafficking and distribution, some human rights defenders fear that the decree could be misused for political purposes. Pavel Sapelka, a legal expert for the Viasna Human Rights Center, believes the authorities would not hesitate to abuse their powers to limit free speech online.

К сожалению, власти были более обеспокоены ограничением доступа к сайтам, который распространяют нежелательную для властей информацию. Понятно, что если эта норма будет работать прозрачно, так, как и должно, безусловно, это хорошо, поскольку мы все понимаем, что не стоит на месте ни преступность, ни средства, которые помогают преступникам осуществлять свою деятельность. Если же под видом борьбы с противоправными действиями будут чиниться препятствия в работе тех сайтов, которые пропагандируют политические взгляды, то это будет расценено как очередное нарушение.

Unfortunately, the authorities are more concerned with the restriction of access to the websites which disseminate undesirable information. Of course, if this norm works transparently, as it should, this will be a good thing, because we understand that [organized] crime and the tools it employs are only becoming more sophisticated. However, if the authorities use combating illegal actions as a disguise for hindering the work of websites which promote certain political views, it will be regarded as another violation [of free speech].

Under the new decree, ISPs will be obligated to store information about the time of connection to and disconnection from the Internet, as well as the amount of data sent and received. Companies providing Internet services will also have to collect all Internet users’ names, passport data (collected by ISPs when users sign service contracts), internal and external IPs, and MAC-addresses of their devices. Service providers across the board will be required to retain this data for at least one year. While this amount of time is not uncommon by global standards, the technical and legal particulars around collection remain murky. Moreover, this approach seems extremely general, given the relatively narrow stated goal of pursuing drug traffickers and users.

Legal restrictions associated with drug trafficking in Belarus have gotten worse, mainly because of “spice“—a new drug commercially known as synthetic marijuana. It’s relatively easy to find a recipe for cooking spice on the Internet, and that has contributed to the drug's popularity in Belarus, Russia, and other neighboring countries. Since January 2014, spice has made up 70% of the illegal drug market in Belarus. Although the problem is real, experts believe that it is a critical misstep to allow authorities to surveil the online behavior of all Internet users, regardless of whether they have any association with drug-related websites.

This decree is the latest in a series of new regulations that restrict online rights—without question, censorship in Belarus is becoming stronger as presidential elections draw near.

Last December, the government adopted amendments to media legislation, ostensibly mandating that any website in the Belarusian segment of the Internet will be viewed as a media organization. This leaves websites of all kinds subject to the mercy of the Communications Ministry, which has the authority to shut down sites extrajudicially.

At the end of February the Communications Ministry published a decree mandating ISPs to block Internet anonymizers such as Tor and VPN services. The authorities suggested that any such service with anonymising facilities used to access websites already blacklisted in Belarus would be added to the state blacklist as well.

Soon after the adoption of the media amendments, several large online platforms, including independent news websites, were blocked temporarily. Local activists and journalists called this blocking a “dress rehearsal before the election.” If this is indeed the case, then limiting access to anonymizers and storing users’ browsing history and personal data are but little changes to the final script.

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