Blackouts in Belarus

The human rights implications of internet blackouts

By Annabel Pemberton, a privacy law professional and host of The Wired Wig, a law and technology podcast

August 2020 marked a poignant moment for Belarus. After 26 years under the rule of the same President, Alexander Lukashenko was reported to have won 80% of the vote. Instead of accepting the result, the country has since been in a state of protest and with opposition Svetlana Tikhanovskaya calling out “numerous falsifications” of votes. It could spell the end of Lukashenko’s rule and its totalitarian elements.

One criticism of the elections is the reduction in internet services. But why did this happen, how was it possible and is there such a thing as a right to the internet?

During the vote on Sunday 9th August, availability was ‘significantly disrupted’ as NetBlocks indicated a drop-off of internet capacity, which occurred again a few weeks later. For people in Belarius, this resulted in a reduced service on apps like Telegram, Youtube and Google. Resources outside of Belarus were also restricted. 

The history of internet blackouts is stark. Human Rights Watch warned in early 2020 of repeat events, following last year’s blackouts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Iran to name a few. While internet blackouts can happen due to internal control seized by a State outsider, these recent instances have been the result of direct government actions. 

How do blackouts happen? 

The exact cause of the Belarusian internet blackouts is yet to be confirmed. One suggestion is that large quantities of traffic from abroad were used to essentially block the system: telecommunications operator Beltelecom has said that “foreign traffic in large quantities” is to blame for “interruptions in access to some resources and overload of channels”.  This is also supported by The National Computer Incident Response Center which believes that the problem occurred due to information overload, through DDoS attacks on the infrastructure of the BY-NET network.

While technically this could be possible, the interference seems more likely to have originated from within Belarus itself. Firstly, the current politics suggests that this is a move of State control and censorship. Lukoshenko demonstrated the government’s view on internet freedom in early September, commenting that further internet restrictions would not be enforced unless it came without international condemnation. Leonid Volkov from the Internet Protection Society, a Russian NGO focused on internet freedom and digital rights, shared through Telegram that the blackouts were politically aggravated: 

“They turned off the main switch in Beltelecom, and some more switches that they could reach. This led to a drop in connectivity five times, to 20% of the usual level. That is, only 20% of the total number of points of interface between Belarusian networks and foreign ones remained.” 

Secondly, this is further supported by speculation that the government is working with US firm Sandvine Inc and its ‘deep packet inspection’ equipment to monitor and filter network traffic. Typically, this tool is used to search for viruses and illegal content but it can also be used to repress internet access. Belarus’s National Traffic Exchange Center could have therefore potentially used this kind of equipment to block parts of the internet.

Is internet access a human right? 

When the internet was reduced to 20% of the normal capacity during the election day, this had the effect of interfering with the country’s awareness of the election. Those who did know also could not communicate with one another or take to social media to share the unravelling protests. While the internet “allows two-way communication” empowering users to be both speakers and listeners, our intertwined online and offline dynamic can still be threatened by tyranny. This issue is magnified in the context of an election as it prevents society from speaking out (freedom of expression), protesting for what they believe in (freedom of association) and potentially spreading the word (freedom of press). 

Therefore, the argument for the access to the internet to be a basic human right has been driven by a number of academics such as Dr. Merten Reglitz. He says that protection of society’s usage of the internet is crucial because the internet can be used as an ‘effective way for lobbying and holding accountable global players like global governance institutions and multinational corporations”. Fifty human rights groups have recently written to the UN’s Special Rapporteurs on the suppression of rights and freedoms in the wake of the internet blackouts. The letter highlights that there is no national law that justifies the interventions. 

Organisations are also campaigning against the practice. Access Now pressures governments to not deprive their nation of the internet through their campaign #keepiton and Reclaim the Net reports stories of censorship to spread awareness of the issue. Even companies like Apple have adopted policies committed to freedom of information and expression online.

Combatting Censorship

While the law takes its time to change, Belarusians have managed to find other ways to regain internet access. Psiphon, a free internet censorship circumvention tool, saw its regular daily users in Belarus increase in one day from 10,000 before the election to more than a million.  Proxy for Telegram also provides another alternative. VPNs, which allow for your online traffic to flow through an encrypted tunnel, can prevent the government from recognising your access. TunnelBear, a VPN provider, were even offering deals for its services just before the election in anticipation of State censorship.

The way we communicate in society has developed significantly. The internet has become such an integral part of our lives, making it increasingly important to call out practices which suppress dissenting views. However, while governments have the mechanism to silence citizens without actionable sanctions to hold them accountable, internet blackouts will become increasingly common. Ultimately, an education around alternative ways to stay connected should be actively encouraged. After all, information is power.