Belarusians evading brutal police violence this week to protest the country’s disputed presidential election are contending with rolling internet blackouts. These have made most of the web inaccessible, but have failed to stop protesters organising online.
Access to search engines and social media such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, as well as international and independent local news sites, has been severely restricted in Belarus since protests began shortly after the election commission declared president Alexander Lukashenko the winner with 80 per cent of the vote.
Internet shutdowns have become a fact of life in authoritarian regimes around the world, including Russia and China. However the blackout in Belarus also pointed to the limits of their usefulness as a tool of repression.
Waves of arrests of journalists and opposition activists have led protesters to organise on messaging app Telegram, which remained accessible.
“They didn’t manage to turn off Telegram and everything people filmed on the street went through there,” said Yana Soboleva, an activist at Human Constanta, a human rights organisation in Minsk. “So turning off the internet was an absolutely meaningless and badly thought through overreaction.”
The crackdown is threatening to upend Belarus’ thriving tech sector, one of the few parts of the economy that has flourished in a decade of stagnation.
On Wednesday, more than 300 Belarusian tech executives, developers, and investors wrote an open letter decrying “conditions in which tech businesses cannot function” and warning of “a mass outflow of specialists abroad” that would “cancel out all our achievements in tech” if the police violence continued.
But the shutdown also showed Belarusians’ tech savvy. The most popular apps in Apple’s App Store and on Android were all virtual private networks that allow users to bypass censorship. Nexta, the most popular Telegram channel in Belarus, operated from outside the country in the Polish capital Warsaw. It collects videos users send in from the protests across the country and disseminates them to its 1.5m followers — a remarkable number in a country with less than 10m people.
Girlpower, a group set up on Tuesday to arrange a protest in Minsk where women dressed in white and holding roses linked arms, attracted about 10,000 members and spawned several copycat demonstrations before its organisers shut it down the next day.
“The opposition didn’t have leaders or a centre that wavering officials could swear a new oath to,” political consultant Artyom Shraibman wrote in an essay for the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“Administrators of popular opposition Telegram channels were the ones telling people where to meet. The regime actively used the fact that they lived abroad to make its point to its employees and supporters that the protests are a provocation from outside.”
Mr Lukashenko claimed unspecified foreigners “had turned off the internet from abroad to incite discontent among our population”.
But, according to Qrator Labs, a Prague-based cyber security company, the shutdown appears to have been a calculated move to hinder the protesters.
On the eve of the election, the two state-owned companies that share a monopoly on all access to the global web in Belarus began shutting down up to 80 per cent of bandwidth on IPv6, the protocol that routes internet traffic.
“Dropping almost all IPv6 from maintenance is a thing that could only be done from ‘within’ — we have never seen such a massive and simultaneous “outside” IPv6 shutdown,” researchers at Qrator Labs wrote in a blog post.
Mikhail Kilmarev, executive director of the Russian-based Internet Protection Society, a privacy rights group, said the shutdown was likely because of Belarus’ national operator using deep packet inspection, a technology that can reroute, filter and block web traffic.
“Daily traffic in Belarus is about 200 bytes a second on average. And it turns out the DPI equipment can handle about half that. It managed about 100 bytes, then the traffic ran into a brick wall and it seems they didn’t account for the capabilities of the equipment,” Mr Kilmarev said.
The shutdown meant digital banking, taxi services, maps, online shopping, and other services ground to a halt, costing the country more than $56m in lost economic activity per day, according to Netblocks, an advocacy group that monitors shortages around the world.
Netblocks said this was because of the use of DPI keyword filtering, which added news sites and social media to a list of 10,000 sites, including Disney and Walmart, to give “the impression of a wider technical failure”.
DPI technology is used in countries such as China and Iran to censor internet traffic. It is also said to be the cornerstone of Russia’s “sovereign internet”, which the Kremlin says it is building in order to keep its own internet running in case foreigners attempt to switch it off from the outside. Activists claim the technology will be used to suppress dissent.
Belarus spent $2.5m in 2018 to acquire DPI equipment. But its government “wasn’t as smart as Russia”, Mr Kilmarev said.
In Moscow, “they shut down mobile internet in certain places because that’s what you need to do to stop protesters from co-ordinating,” he added. “But the rest of the world affects [Belarus’] economy. It shows you that Lukashenko’s regime doesn’t care at all about its own people and its own economy.”
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