Regulating the Internet .BY Decree

Is Luka Watching You?

The recent announcement of a Belarusian law on aspects of Internet regulation certainly raised a number of alarm bells for many groups seeking to protect free expression online. Certainly, Belarus is no stranger to internet repression, ranging from pro-democracy websites repeatedly under attack, tracking down and arresting activists, and many other insidious acts. Given the extensive and differing coverage of the law in the press, here is a summary of what is expected to take place with this law.

In order to implement the norms stipulated by Decree of the Council of Ministers on February 1, 2010, No. 60 (which states that any entity in Belarus selling goods or services to Belarus citizens on the web must use the .by Belarusian domain name), Belarusian authorities have implemented Law No. 317-3. Fines for breaking the law range as high as 1m Belarus rubles (£77; $120).

The impact of this law has been widely debated on its true intentions. The official news agency states that the law’s intention is “to create favorable conditions for Belarusian economic entities, to enable transparent online shopping, to protect interests of Belarusian internet users regarding the information, which distribution is legally prohibited (slave trade, pornography, propaganda of violence, cruelty and so on), to create conditions to protect honor and dignity”. Currently, many Belarus-based companies rent hosting services from Internet service providers in Russia to save money. With the new law, the government hopes to curb this practice and create better controls for collecting tax revenue from e-commerce services. These views are quick to point out that this regulation does not “cut off access to the global internet”, as some news reports have indicated, and are merely an administrative provision to lay out procedures for punishment that were absent in the 2010 decree.

However, there are a number of features of this law, as well as the 2010 decree, that raise concern. To start, entities that offer internet services to the public (internet cafes, computer clubs, etc.) are obliged to "record and store... personal data of Internet services users and information about the Internet services that have been provided," according to state press outlet Belta. In fact, in his report to the OSCE, Andrei Richter points out that there are many areas of particular concern, including but not limited to: vaguely defined restrictions and prohibitions on spreading illegal information, unclear role of intermediaries to remove identified violations, and many others. In addition, the involvement of a number of control agencies including "organs of internal affairs, taxation, public security organs of State Control Committee of Belarus" demonstrate the increased capacity of the government to gain control in handling “violations”.

While there is not a looming threat to cut off access to the "foreign internet" in Belarus, this law's ambiguities, its intentions to gain more control of the internet, and the precedence set by Belarusian authorities to violate internet users’ rights do cause concern. Many countries with a track record of ignoring the rights of its citizenry often create confusing and ambiguous laws to ensure their future manipulation to target critics of the regime. The NDItech team will continue to keep a watchful eye on the implementation of this law as well as any other suspicious legal framework that emerge in other countries.