Protests over a disputed presidential election in Belarus continue. The country's Central Election Commission said President Aleksandr Lukashenko, in power since 1994, had won 80.1% of the vote and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya only 10.12% of the vote. But the election was disputed from the start. On Aug. 9, 2020, Belarusians experienced a massive communications blackout involving disruptions to internet connectivity and cellular devices, as reported by Wired. Belarus’ President Lukashenko claims the blackout resulted from foreign interference; however, experts and human rights organizations allege the Belarusian government imposed the blackout that took place amidst Belarus’ tense presidential election, with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the opposition candidate. The blackout affected virtual private networks (VPNs), which usually are immune from filtering protocols.
According to Netblocks, a connectivity monitoring group, the first outage in Belarus started right after midnight on Sunday and went unnoticed. As election polls opened later that morning, outages and connectivity disruptions became increasingly severe. Netblocks also said the blocking strategy it observed, and continues to observe, started with a “deep packet inspection,” which allows a censor to filter web traffic and block access to specific sites. Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, told WIRED, “the network layer distributions were introduced after the platform filters were gradually rolled out. So much was filtered by the time the blackouts started that they were difficult to distinguish and report.” Toker further noted a brute-force blocking strategy at the network layer, rather than a more refined filtering system at the application layer, is likely the cause. A refined filtering system can disable applications, such as social media and communication apps, without affecting general internet connectivity. Countries like Iraq, Liberia, and Venezuela have used such filtering techniques to block access to apps like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, according to Wired.
Belarusian officials claim foreign attacks caused the blackout
On election day morning, the National Center for Response to Computer Incidents of the Republic of Belarus, a task force created by President Lukashenko, stated that the country’s infrastructure was experiencing a “massive wave of DDoS-attacks.” Belarus’ Computer Emergency Response Team supported that declaration. ISP RUE Beltelecom, a government-owned telecommunications company that owns roughly ninety percent of all fixed communication channels in Belarus, released a statement suggesting the outages were due to “multiple cyberattacks of varying intensity.” Similarly, President Lukashenko declared the government didn’t impose the blackout in a recent statement. “Our specialists are now determining where this shutdown is coming from. So, if the Internet is working poorly, that’s not our doing but an initiative from abroad,” the president said.
The Belarus government is suspected of imposing the blackout to control the election information and counter any opposition
Neutral observers remain skeptical. These skeptics offer three reasons to support their claim the blackout was government-imposed.
First, there isn’t evidence for the government’s official narrative. “There’s no indication of a DDoS attack. It can’t be ruled out, but there’s no external sign of it that we see,” Alp Toker told WIRED. Mikhail Kilmarev, the executive director of the Internet Protection Society told Meduza the Belarusian authorities’ explanation for the nationwide blackout doesn’t add up. To completely disrupt Belarus’ internet from the outside "you’d need every country connected to Belarus to come to an agreement and turn it off together. As for DDoS-attacks, there are plenty of anti-DDoS technologies that successfully repel attacks without disabling an entire country’s Internet access. Moreover, ISPs usually counter powerful DDoS-attacks collectively, Kilmarev added.
Second, there are allegations the Belarusian government forewarned some businesses and institutions about the planned connectivity disruptions. On August 4, 2020, an internet post claimed to show an email from a Belarusian bank warning its customers of the impending digital outages. That same day, Nexta Live published an image of a letter where a Belarusian company’s manager informed his staff about the likelihood of an internet shutdown and listed instructions to prepare for it. Reports from other major media outlets corroborate this letter. On August 8, 2020, a Russian newspaper published an interview with a cellphone company employee, who confirmed that Belarus would disconnect all communications.
Third, because Belarus has a largely centralized internet infrastructure, it would be simple for the government to impose connectivity disruptions or blackouts, if the appropriate groundwork was put in place.
Moreover, Pres. Lukashenko reportedly had the Internet shut down yesterday after a video of him getting booed by factory workers at a speech he gave on Monday.
Belarus’ blackout smacks of digital authoritarianism
Digital authoritarianism – the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, suppress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations – has helped repressive regimes enforce extreme limits on the free flow of information and technologies their citizens use. Alarmingly, the blackout seen in Belarus is nothing new – repressive regimes, such as Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, and India, have used connectivity blackouts as a tool to crush dissent. This past year, governments in Burundi, Guinea, Togo, and Venezuela have imposed social media blackouts during their elections.
This past Monday, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the Belarusian election “was not free and fair,” and added, “We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protestors and the detention of opposition supporters, as well as the use of internet shutdowns to hinder the ability of the Belarusian people to share information about the election and the demonstrations.”
Belarus’ nationwide blackout matters because digital authoritarianism is on the rise around the world, which puts democracies at risk. If left unchecked, such regimes will continue to violate the rights of domestic and foreign populations, especially using technology to wield their authoritarian swords. In a world where most things are connected to the internet, a government should never have the power to impose a blackout to centralize its control and deny rights to its citizens.
--written by Allison Hedrick