OpenNet Initiative to Monitor Internet during the Belarus Presidential Elections

Cambridge (UK), Oxford, Toronto & Cambridge (Mass), 17 March 2006 (ONI). The OpenNet Initiative (ONI) is monitoring for disruptions to Internet access during Belarus’ presidential elections this Sunday (19 March 2006). ONI is testing for evidence of filtering and other denials of service against opposition and media sites. Several instances of alleged DDOS attacks and DNS tampering are presently under investigation. Under the increasingly authoritarian leadership of President Lukashenka, Belarus has become known as the "last dictatorship in Europe," and international observers widely expect this Sunday’s elections to be rigged. Tampering with Internet access has been alleged in past elections, including the presidential vote in 2001, and parliamentary elections in October 2004.

In the past five years Belarus has put in place extensive legal, technical and economic measures aimed at restricting access to the Internet and controlling content critical to the regime. Laws make it illegal to publish information critical of the state, and the Belarus equivalent of the US National Security Agency is responsible for management of the top level county domain, making it possible to temporarily deny access to sites by tampering with DNS records. Belarus ISPs are obliged to buy their connectivity from a single state telecommunications monopoly provider, which also additionally owns shares in most private operators. Harsh taxation measures as well as licensing requirements put operators under intense pressure to cooperate with state authorities.

To date, President Lukashenka’s regime has exercised its ability to control the Internet lightly, and without resorting to widespread internet censorship. Despite reports by human rights and opposition groups accusing authorities of filtering content, blocking websites, and in one case, shutting down the mobile phone system; ONI research has found only one instance of filtering in the past year, and apparently not undertaken for political reasons. (The filtered the sites, and, carried content of interest to the gay community, rather that the political opposition.)

The election monitoring effort caps off ONI’s year-long study of the Internet in Belarus. The Open Net Initiative will release its Belarus “Country Watch” report the week of 20 March 2006.

Monitoring the Internet during election periods is of increasing importance, particularly in the former Soviet republics where the Internet played a significant role in the "color revolutions” that brought down governments in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.1 During the February 2005 Kyrgyz parliamentary elections, the ONI documented sustained DDOS attacks that disrupted two of the major opposition newspapers.2 The difficulty in tracing the perpetrators of the DDOS attacks suggests that the use of computer network attack may replace filtering as means used by governments (and others) intent on silencing critics. Unlike filtering, DDOS attacks offer a degree of plausible deniability against charges of censorship and are difficult to prove.