On behalf of 220 international organizations in 99 countries, internet watchdog groups Access Now and #KeepItOn sent a letter to self-appointed President of Belarus, Alyaksandar Lukashenko, asking him to keep the internet open during the Belarus election period.
The letter was written because of Lukashenko’s past behavior in this regard.
“We write to express serious concern about reports of alleged mobile internet jamming in Belarus on June 19, 2020 aimed at dispersing protesters who were picketing around Independence Avenue in Minsk. There have also been reports of arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists working with various media outlets who were covering the protests.”
To no one’s surprise, Lukashenko ignored the request to keep the internet open. The outages started before the election but became complete almost the moment the polls closed. What a coincidence! It’s almost as if Lukashenko realized no one would accept the final vote tallies and protests would occur.
Of course, Lukashenko claims he had no idea how this could happen and blames the outages on foreign interference. He claims there must have been some sort of DDoS attack on every server in Belarus, which would be quite an attack if it were true. But, no one, not even Lukashenko really believes this story.
Cutting off a country’s entire internet is a ham-fisted way to control discontent. Usually, countries like China and Iran simply block the use of offending social media services. In order to completely shut down the internet, the government must have the power to order Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to flip the switch, which simply means, shut down the servers. The government can do this in Belarus because all the ISP servers are within the country’s borders. Such unquestioned compliance by ISP companies reveals the fear these companies must have of disobeying government orders. It’s basically an obey-or-else situation.
Despite the radical nature of using an internet shutdown to control public behavior, more and more governments are using them. Access Now claims that 33 countries used blackouts as a political tool in 2019.
Now, you might think that this is a ploy only adopted by corrupt dictators, and being a feared dictator certainly helps. However, the world’s biggest democracy, India, used this tactic overwhelmingly more than any other country in 2018 as this graph from Access Now shows.
Venezuela’s President, Nicolás Maduro, blacks out the internet whenever his main opponent plans to speak. Russia has set up its own internet so they can easily shut down all the servers if they have to. Unfortunately for internet users, blacking out the internet really is an effective strategy for undermining protests against those in power.
There is, however, a major drawback to such a strategy. Cutting off the internet costs money. Businesses can’t operate effectively, and the country, overall, loses its reputation which affects future business ventures with foreign companies. The internet freedom watchdog organization, Netblocks, uses a tool to calculate the cost of a shutdown per country. The Belarus internet has been turned back on after being off for 61 hours. Here is the cost I came up with when I used the cost tool.
That’s a lot of money for a country that is already under financial stress.
For this reason, the internet shutdown technique is seen as a desperate measure. It appears that Belarus is now taking the path adopted by other oppressive governments. It has started blocking offending apps. WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram are now blocked. Telegram, however, works; at least for the moment. But is it safe?
Most apps with end-to-end encryption are quite safe, but some have some security holes which make them vulnerable to certain types of attacks. Telegram has had some security problems in the past, but the app has a lot of users which makes organizing protests easier than with more secure apps like Wickr or Apple’s iMessage. Besides, iMessage requires an Apple device. By and large, the most secure app with a significant number of users is Signal. It doesn’t have anywhere near the number of users as WhatsApp, but when WhatsApp is blocked, Signal may be available. In addition, Express VPN claims that Signal “has arguably the most secure messaging protocol developed”. In fact, WhatsApp uses some of its technology, but don’t forget that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook. This means that its U.S.-based servers are susceptible to government subpoenas.
Keep in mind that any app that stores data on its servers can have those servers seized by the government. The U.S. government frequently asks for such information and most major American social media platforms comply. They have little choice. However, when Signal received a government subpoena, the only data on the servers was the date the account was set up and the last time it was used. Signal is also working on an even safer extension of its platform called, Sessions, which apparently incorporates the Tor browser. All this aside, remember that government agents can get an account on any messaging platform, so make sure you really know who you are messaging.
If protesters in Belarus have not been totally discouraged by the brutality of the government crackdown, expect them to quickly find ways to circumvent the banned apps to organize more protests. If that comes to pass, expect the government to once more block all internet access. However, this is a cat-and-mouse game that the government cannot win without resorting to more brutality. They cannot risk a total economic collapse just to keep protesters off the streets. Without money, how can Lukashenko pay his police and militia to do the dirty work? In other words, the protests will eventually overturn the government when the law enforcement personnel get tired of working for free and begin to join the opposition. Lukashenko appears to be on the back foot for the moment as factory workers begin to strike. Ameliorating gestures have been made, such as releasing imprisoned protesters and making the police appear ‘friendly’ by lowering their shields. But make no mistake about it. Lukashenko has absolutely no plans to leave office. He has even threatened to bring in help from Russia, which would likely make this into an international conflict. That said, I believe Lukashenko should keep two words in mind: Nicolae Ceaușescu.