Belarus drops iron firewall on Internet in effort to keep ecommerce cash inside the country

New laws look more like radical protectionism than simple censorship

If you look forward to chatting with friends, Facebook Friends or relatives in places like Babrujsk, Vicebsk, Hrodna or other cities in Belarus and wonder why they haven't answered your New Year's wishes, you may want to brace yourself. Their problems are more serious than living in beautiful, historic cities inexplicably missing at least one important vowel.

This week the Republic of Belarus, considered the last holdout for Stalinism even in the former Soviet Union, will draw an iron firewall around its borders to separate its virtuous, loyal citizens from the corrupting influences of the West. Or the Wire. Or whatever direction or entity the Internet can be associated.

A new law imposes a fine of up to the equivalent of $125 more than half the $208 the average Belarusian earned during 10 months of last year – for visiting or using foreign web sites without permission.

The law, which requires that all companies and individuals classified as entrepreneurs – non state-owned businesses, primarily – must do business only with Internet services and domains within the country, according to a report on the law from the Library of Congress news service.

The country isn't completely cut off from the outside Internet, but any online resources used by Belarusians must be present or registered within the country's borders, according to TechDirt.

Internet service providers, Internet cafes and even local networks within homes must be registered and must keep track of the sites users visited and impose a bank of censorship rules against pornography or "extremist" sites that encourage things the government dislikes.

It's not clear whether services such as email – which rely on connections and services outside the country at least for international messages – would violate the domestic-provider law or not.

Buying anything from sites based outside the country is clearly banned, however, restricting online sales within Belarus' own crippled economy.

Belarus is suffering one of the most severe economic crises in Europe, though it is not part of the European Union as are Greece, Italy and other hard-pressed states.

Belarus' ruble has been devalued twice during the past year, dropping 36 percent during the spring and another 20 percent in October, when the Belarusian ruble was trading at 9,000 per U.S. dollar.

The International Monetary Fund has refused to provide any loans to help restructure the Belarusian economy until the government reduces inflation driven by solutions such as printing enough rubles to increase the money supply more than 50 percent during the first nine months of 2011, to restrain the growth of wages and keep prices from rising too fast for wage increases to keep up.

Adding extra restrictions, penalties and requirements on use of the Internet is a common tactic for authoritarian governments under pressure from unhappy citizens. Belarus' iron firewall seems less an effort at political control, however, than it does an attempt to impose buy-local policies whose goal is to keep money from fleeing the country disguised in other currencies to avoid being devalued at home.

The new law goes into effect Jan. 6.

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