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Iron digi-curtain: Belarus nationalises internet

Massive fines to control foreign access

Europe's last Stalinist state could fine citizens half their salary for visiting foreign websites in a domestic clamp-down on the internet.

The Republic of Belarus will this week introduce a law that imposes restrictions on visiting and/or using foreign websites by Belarus citizens and residents. Violation is punishable by fines up to the equivalent of $125.

That might not seem much in the west, but the average salary in Belarus was just $208 for 10 months last year, or 2.31m Belarus rubles. That means surfers could be being fined up to 49 per cent of their salary, or Br1.037m, just for something as simple as ordering a book on Amazon – the online retailer has no national physical presence inside the country.

Writer and open-source watcher Glyn Moody Tweeted here ordinary users and businesses could still access sites outside the country but online businesses must be in or registered in Belarus.

It is believed the new law – which comes into effect on 6 January – could see sites like Amazon close off access to their service to Belarus.

According to the US Library of Congress website, which reported the law here:

Suppose someone in Belarus buys something from Amazon, which is not a Belarusian company and thus is not registered in Belarus. The transaction is illegal, and so the Belarusian Attorney General would send a note to Amazon informing it that it is violating national law and might be sued. Probably Amazon would close access to its website for visitors from Belarus, because such visitors comprise a minor share of the company's customers but the resultant legal troubles caused by the Belarusian government might create a major problem.

The new law requires that all companies and individuals registered as entrepreneurs use only domestic internet domains for online services, sales, and emails.

Business requests from Belarus cannot be served over the internet if the service provider uses an online service outside the country. The authorities – including the secret police – are authorised to investigate and prosecute violations.

Also, businesses who offer access to the internet – such as internet cafes – can be prosecuted and closed if users are found to be visiting sites outside the country and if their behavior isn't "properly" identified, recorded and monitored. People allowing others to browse the web from a computer at their home are also subject to the restrictions.

Belarus declared its independence from the Soviet Union as that political union collapsed in 1991, but unlike many other former Soviet republics that have held multi-party elections or at least liberalised their economies, Belarus has remained staunchly stuck in the past.

It has been under the control of President Aleksandr Lukashenko since 1994, with Lukashenko tightening his grip on all spheres of domestic life. He has actually extended state ownership of private enterprises and arrested "disruptive" businessmen and factory owners. He also supported a hardliners' coup against the liberalising former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 and disbanded his own country's parliament in 1996.

Lukashenko is a self-confessed authoritarian, but 2011 was a bad year for dictators, with the Arab uprising taking out regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and presenting challenges in Syria and Bahrain.

Access to the internet had helped improve communications and foment political dissent within these regions – all the while exposing to the outside world the actions of leaders as they tried to clamp down on the protesters.

Last year also saw protests against the parliamentary elections in Russia, throwing into doubt prime minister and former KGB man Vladimir Putin's expected return to the presidency this year.

The Russian experience would be particularly uncomfortable for the rulers of Belarus, who have forged an extremely tight bond with the country and deliberately shunned the west.

It would seem Lukashenko is taking steps to head off the arrival of information about the discontent in Russia in particular into his country while also avoiding a potential Belarus spring. ®

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