Belarus: why is it so easy for governments to control the internet, and what can be done?

Published on August 13, 2020

Belarus has been without internet, or with massively impaired access, since Sunday evening.

NetBlocks, which tracks internet disruption, reported that the country had been “largely offline” for almost 24 hours. Access Now, which tracks internet freedom issues, tweeted that authorities in Belarus had blocked access to dozens of websites and some Virtual Private Network services (VPNs). VPNs are typically used to circumvent internet blocks.

In 2016, a report from the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly declared that access to the internet is a basic human right, and important to giving everyone the ability to “exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

The internet blackout in Belarus is one of many such examples worldwide. Internet blocks are widespread. In Africa last year, Ivory Coast, DR Congo, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone restricted access to the internet. In Eritrea, internet access is government-controlled and less than one percent of the population reportedly go online. And North Korea only allows the political elite access to the web.

The internet was always designed to give open access to information and communication. To educate. To inform. To bring people together. To warn. To organize and mobilize.

The implications of a government-led internet block are many and varied. I spoke – via VPNs and other apps – with a few people from the tech ecosystem in Minsk to better understand the situation. All names have been changed to protect their identity.

“Prior to the election, the tech community created a chat bot for Telegram called Voice2020, which showed that opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhonovskaya was projected to win with 80 percent of the votes, Ana told me. “It shows incredible disrespect to tell the people of Belarus, with that pre-election data, that the current leader will remain president of the country. We feel like our voices has been erased.”

“Internet has become one of the basic human rights, being a logical extension of the right for the freedom of opinion and expression,” Ivan said. “In a country with a high Internet penetration rate (~70 percent), blocking Internet access seriously damages everyday life – all for the sake of hiding government lies. What is particularly outrageous, is the fact that we’ve been building an image of an investor-friendly country, a shining paradise for software development – and now it’s ruined. Offices of the international companies that believed that image are now barely functioning, struggling to find some ways to work from within the country or just sending core teams to other countries. Investor-friendliness? Tell that to an angel investor who was detained yesterday just for walking outside to meet his friend.”

So why is this possible? Simply put, the way the internet is constructed makes it easy to limit access. There are three commonly used techniques that block access to Internet sites – DNS tampering, IP blocking, and URL blocking using a proxy. In addition to these techniques, governments can force search results to be removed, and if they have the jurisdiction to do so (or are a dictatorship), they can simply take down web content providers.

What can be done?

There are moves to change the way we access the internet, and one of the more promising methods is the creation of a peer-to-peer internet solution. P2P would stop governments having control over the internet at large, and deliver truly democratized access.

One such P2P internet provider is ThreeFold, which has created the world’s largest decentralized internet and cloud system.

“In today’s world, access to the internet is an important human right – the right to communicate, the right to be informed, the right to be connected to others, especially during times of uncertainty and unrest,” Kristof de Spiegeleer, CEO and founder at ThreeFold told me. “Unfortunately, what we’re seeing lately is an alarming shift toward internet shutdown policies that allow large corporations and governments to limit access, sometimes prohibiting it altogether. We at ThreeFold believe that the internet is too vital to be controlled by any single entity and instead should collectively be owned, managed, and decided upon. A truly decentralized grid is a step toward that reality.”

Decentralized internet is a viable alternative to the existing infrastructure, which is largely controlled by a small number of huge corporations – another potential risk to freedom of expression, information, and knowledge. While it is too late to help the citizens of Belarus stay informed and safe right now, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we’ll have a new internet that can deliver on the promise of it being a basic human right.

Julia Sachs is a former Managing Editor at Grit Daily. She covers technology, social media and disinformation. She is based in Utah and before the pandemic she liked to travel.

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