As citizens of the United States worry over the implications of the pending SOPA legislation, a small land-locked country on the fringes of Europe is showing how bad things can really get. Labeled by the United States as an “outpost of tyranny”, Belarus is certainly living up to its reputation. This Friday, browsing foreign websites will become an offense punishable by fines, with service providers taking responsibility for the actions of their users.
While there are many reasons why people oppose the implementation of SOPA, a common thread is that any level of censorship will simply encourage yet more. The fear is that an inch will become a mile, and before long the Internet will be a place of restrictions where innovation is stifled.
Those pointing to China as an example of how bad things can get should now focus a little closer to the west, on the outskirts of Europe to be precise.
From January 6th, Belarus, which became independent in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, will begin severely restricting what its citizens can do on the Internet. New legislation requires that anyone doing business in the country may only utilize fully local Internet domains when carrying out their activities online.
As highlighted by the Law Library of Congress, this means that it will become illegal for locals to use a site such as Amazon.com, which has no official Belarusian presence. Indeed, browsing any website outside the country will be punishable with fines of up to $125.
The initial decree, issued in February 2010 by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, requires the compulsory registration of all web sites which must then be hosted in the country.
The potential damage to the Belarus economy and their growth from online trade will be significant. According to Alexa, some of the world’s biggest sites are listed in the country’s Top 20 most-visited list including Google, YouTube, Twitter and Wikipedia, all of which have .com domains and US hosting. Indeed, only two sites in the Belarusian Top 10 currently appear to be ‘legal’ for local access.
Additionally, the legislation will also hold Internet providers, such as cafés providing wifi, responsible for the actions of their customers if they are found to be using foreign sites. The same responsibilities lie with home Internet subscribers who share their connections with others.
The suggestion is that such providers, commercial or domestic, will have to monitor for foreign website use and report the findings to authorities. The legislation also ensures there is plenty of data to hand over. As a minimum, ISPs and webhosts will be required to record the names and passport details of customers, along with their domain names, a description of their site’s activities and IP addresses allocated.
So for now, even Google’s Belarusian variant Google.by seems to fall outside the legal reach of citizens of Belarus, hosted as it is in the United States. Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia have further problems, since the .BY variants of their domains have been registered by other entities.
Interestingly, while Belarus National State Television has previously aired pirated movies such as The Hurt Locker, they won’t now be able to grab them from foreign torrent sites as they did in the past. RUTracker, one of Russia’s largest torrent sites, is Belarus’ 20th most-popular site. However, it too has a non .BY domain and is hosted abroad, rendering it off limits to locals.
Torrents.by will be doing lots of business soon though – hosted and registered in Belarus.