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Belarus confusion

January 5, 2012

Businesses selling goods online to consumers in Belarus will face a number of new regulations effective January 6, but contrary to media reports, Belarus has no plans to ban access to foreign websites.

Man on Skype
The new law in Belarus takes effect on January 6Image: Picture-Alliance/KEYSTONE

A report published late last month in the Global Legal Mirror, the online publication of the United States Library of Congress, has led to plenty of confusion - willingly or unwillingly - about amendments to Belarus' existing Internet regulations.

The author, Peter Roudik, director of the Global Research Center at Library of Congress, wrote that the new law "imposes restrictions on visiting and/or using foreign websites by Belarusian citizens and residents."

Several media organizations worldwide have picked up on Roudik's report, claiming that Belarus was planning to curb Internet use and establish a new Digital Iron Curtain.

Authoritarian rule

Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko is known for his authoritarian rule. Last year, for instance, he tried to crack down on users of social media networks to organize anti-government protests. His muzzling of the opposition has been condemned by both the United States and the European Union.

Keir Giles
Keir Giles says that accusations of online censorship in Belarus are "complete fiction"Image: Conflict Studies Research Centre

But several observers say the new law will have no impact on how people in Belarus use the Internet.

"The talk of censorship is complete fiction," said Keir Giles, director of Conflict Studies Research Centre, an Oxford-based non-profit research institute that provides analysis on Russia and the region.

"The law says very specifically what the restrictions are," Giles told Deutsche Welle. "There is no mention whatsoever of not being able to browse foreign websites."

Aleksey Ponomarev, a Belarusian IT lawyer, wrote in English on his blog on Wednesday that the new law, which takes effect on Friday, "has not brought any radical changes to the Belarussian online market or heavy limitations of human rights and freedoms. Neither visiting foreign websites is considered a violation nor has any of the foreign websites been blocked."

Ponomarev added that Internet service providers will be required to identify users and technical devices providing Internet connectivity, pointing out that "this requirement does not differ from usual worldwide practices of data retention."

Another Belarusian lawyer, Sergei Zikratsky, told Deutsche Welle that the new rules will, however, impact businesses with online shops.

Hosting in Russia to save money

Under the legislation, businesses selling goods and services online to people in Belarus must be registered in the country. Those that don't register will face fines of around 100 euros ($128) for violating the law.

"The sanctions are aimed mostly against Belarusian companies," said Alex Shablovsky, director of Elab Media.

Belarusian website
Some Belarusian websites hosted in Russia may be forced to come homeImage: tut.by

Today, many Belarus-based companies rent hosting services from Internet service providers in Russia to save money. With the new law, the government hopes to clamp down on this practice and create better controls for collecting tax revenue from e-commerce services.

On the Library of Congress website, Roudik wrote that Amazon would likely "close access to its website for visitors from Belarus" as they represent a small number.

Shablovsky, by comparison, expects international companies "to completely ignore" the new law, even if they have to pay a tiny fee.

Roudik, a native Russian speaker, has not responded to e-mail requests for information about his article.

Many experts haved questioned the author's motives for publishing a story that alludes to censorship when, in fact, the new law makes no mention of banning access to national or international websites for Belarusian citizens and residents alike.

Ponomarev, the Minsk-based IT lawyer, offered up one theory.

"The occurred confusion can be explained by the lack of objective and qualified information on Belarusian Internet regulation, on the one hand, and the ambiguity of the provisions of law regulating the Internet, on the other hand," he wrote in his blog.

Author: John Blau
Editor: Cyrus Farivar