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Belarus Restricts Access To Foreign Websites

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Belarusians will be fined up to £81 if they conduct business on foreign websites un der a law that comes in on Friday

The Belarusian government has passed a law which places significant restrictions on the usage of foreign websites by citizens and residents of the country, according to the US Library of Congress.

Violation of the law, which is set to be implemented this Friday (6 January), will be recognised as a misdemeanour and punishable by fines of up to $125 (£81).

“Outpost of Tyranny”

The new law requires that all companies and individuals who are registered as entrepreneurs in the country, must only use domestic internet domains for providing online services, conducting sales or exchanging emails.

Belarus, which has been referred to as the last “outpost of tyranny” in Europe by the US, will enforce the law through investigations and prosecutions by the country’s tax authorities, police and secret police.

Owners of internet cafes could also be found guilty if their equipment is used to break the law or if they fail to disclose customer’s activity, as could people who let others use their personal computers.

In addition, the government has been granted power to establish and update a list of banned websites which should be blocked by ISPs, including those which contain pornographic and extremist content.

The Library of Congress says that in practice, the new measures could result in websites blocking access to Belarusian users, as the relatively small amount of business conducted in the country is not worth the risk of being sued by the government over “illegal” transactions.

Press Freedom a Premium

Belarus is often labelled as the last European dictatorship, with President Alexander Lukashenko ruling with an “increasingly iron fist” since his election in 1994. Lukashenko won his fourth term in office in January 2011 and opposition figures are subjected to harsh penalties for organising protests.

Part of this strategy includes the suppression of free speech, subsidising official newspapers while forcing opposition publications to close down and denying opponents access to state media. Reporters Without Borders has ranked Belarus 151st out of 175 countries in the Press Freedom Index.

These oppressive measures have extended to the country’s 4.4 million internet users, with the government regarding the internet as a potential threat and forcing ISPs to identify devices used by web users and services provided.

Great Firewall of China

A number of countries routinely block internet content, with a 2010 document by Google revealing the number of requests made by government agencies for customer data and the removal of content.

China has defended its right to censor the internet and routinely blocks websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube as well as services such as Skype. This “Great Firewall” has blocked over 350 million pieces of “harmful content” with the government declaring the internet “cleaner than before.”

India has recently urged the likes of Google, Facebook, YouTube and Microsoft to screen offensive content before it is published to users. The US government is assisting in the development of technology to bypass censorship in other countries – although critics argue that its own Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)  is effectively a measure of censorship.