TunnelBear Tales: Belarus and the Internet Shutdown
TunnelBear allows users to browse the internet safely without fear of network restrictions or surveillance. We’re exploring what the often abstract concept of censorship looks and feels like for those on the ground experiencing it. Human Constanta is a human rights organization based in Belarus who told us their story about the August 9-12 internet shutdowns.
TunnelBear: On your website, you list digital rights as one of your three main pillars of human rights work, can you expand on why that is?
Human Constanta: The mission of our human rights organization is to address contemporary human rights challenges. Undoubtedly, digital rights and freedoms or ‘human rights and freedoms in the digital age’ fit this mission. Lots of technologies have come into our lives quite recently, and they have quickly become significant and essential. In some countries, the right to the Internet is already recognized as a basic human right. The idea of digital rights is a transformation of what has been with us for over 70 years - the right to privacy and data protection, freedom of information, freedom of the press, and the absence of censorship.
We consider digital rights to be really important, especially because it’s obvious that technological progress like the development of Internet services, robotization, the spread of the Internet of things is a natural and inevitable process. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created in response to the horrors of World War II. With this, we can avoid future problems by embedding a human rights-based approach into technology. This means that when we talk about digital rights, we’re talking about the ethical use of technology, protecting people from improper use of technological solutions, the responsibility of stakeholders, and the importance of equal access to technology.
TB: Was there a feeling leading up to the election in Belarus that the internet would be shut down?
HC: Despite its proclaimed status as a tech-savvy nation, the Internet in Belarus has always been subject to moderate control. Some websites are blocked, often without court decisions or compelling reasons, Internet media are subject to special attention and sometimes censorship, social networks are monitored, and this is all part of the usual landscape.
When colleagues from Access Now contacted us in March and expressed their thoughts that Belarus might have problems with the Internet during the elections in August, we didn’t see it as a huge threat. We assumed that, as is usually the case, authorities would block several media and human rights organizations' websites for a day or two, and that's it.
But this threat first started to manifest on June 19, when the country’s largest mobile Internet provider was completely disconnected for several hours. A huge number of people were cut off from the Internet and could not find out what was happening on the streets of Minsk, where there was a huge protest against the arrest of a presidential candidate. We then realized the situation was really serious, and began to prepare for possible shutdowns.
TB: How did you prepare for the shutdown?
HC: We didn’t have a clear understanding of what could happen, so we prepared for different scenarios. The first thing we did was create a Digital Observers Telegram chat, where we asked people to help us monitor shutdowns and blockages through the OONI and Network Cell Info Light tools. We did this to record internet constraints which allows us to respond to them.
Then we joined the #KeepItOn campaign and asked for support from Access Now and TunnelBear through VPN subscriptions for activists, human rights defenders, and journalists. We believed that if there was to be blockages or surveillance, this would help people maintain their privacy and gain access to blocked sites. We also distributed instructions on how to use VPN, proxy server for Telegram, and the options for bypassing internet blockages.
In our chat, participants actively discussed possible solutions in case of blockages and shared information about running services and tools. The chat became a place where all possible solutions to blockages were communicated.
All this to say, the preparation consisted mainly of outreach, facilitating a community of motivated technologists, and preparing/testing technical solutions.
TB: When the internet went dark, can you explain what this was like for those in Belarus?
HC: This had different effects for different people. We met people who did not know about VPN and other circumvention tools, and for three days they did not understand what was happening at all. For them it was like a journey to the 90s. They coped with it by calling folks on a regular mobile network, although they were worried about not having access to a messaging service.
For many people, the lack of internet has become a huge problem, especially for those who work in IT-companies or online. An internet shutdown doesn’t just mean you can’t read the news or watch Youtube videos, it means the loss of communication with friends and relatives, the inability to order food or a taxi, the inability to work and earn money, and the complete inability to obtain information.
Those who were prepared and pre-installed means of bypassing the blocking like us, for example, seemed to live in a slightly different world. We saw what was happening on the streets in real time, and journalists constantly called us and asked us to tell them what was happening. Sometimes we just wanted to walk the streets and show everyone the videos coming in from Telegram channels, because it seemed that many people simply did not understand what was happening.
An internet shutdown doesn’t just mean you can’t read the news or watch Youtube videos, it means the loss of communication with friends and relatives, the inability to order food or a taxi, the inability to work and earn money, and the complete inability to obtain information.
Since for most of the time, the Internet did not work at all, it was scary to leave the house. But we felt it was important, going out allowed us to help the victims of police and military violence and to document violations.
TB: How did those in the internet freedom community (and beyond) communicate when the internet was shut down?
HC: The methods of communication were the same - mainly via Telegram which sometimes worked via built-in proxy only. People from the community mostly knew what to do, they had VPNs and proxy servers preinstalled, some had their own VPNs.
When the shutdown wasn’t full, the channel was significantly degraded and filtered to disable popular VPN protocols such as OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP, and SSL/HTTPS. Despite most of the tools being helpless, there were still opportunities to go outside the bynet using more sophisticated circumvention tools. There were also periods when the restrictions were more loose. At these moments, we tried to tell people how to download VPNs and how to install a proxy. In the case of Androids and laptops, installation files were sent via bluetooth and via flash drives. Some people created online file sharing services with direct access to installers. In other cases, these were SMS and voice calls. I know of an example when the media started sending out their news via SMS.
TB: Can you give an indication of how many people in your network were affected by the shutdown?
HC: I don't know if it is even possible to calculate how many people affected the shutdown. I would say that out of 100% of people I know, a maximum of 20% were able to get in touch.
TB: How would you describe the idea of internet freedom to those who’ve always had it?
HC: I don't know if there is complete internet freedom somewhere. I would say that freedom of the Internet is when you know that you will get access to the information that interests you at any given time.
This is when you know that you will not be illegally deprived of the opportunity to tell your friends and family that you are alive and well. This is an understanding that your personal life, freedom, and earnings do not depend on a dictator who has gone mad and turns off the switch, thinking that this will make people obey. Internet freedom is about global connectivity, a dialogue between everyone who works with Internet governance and understands the consequences of their actions.
TB: Is there anything you’d like to see more of in the internet freedom community?
HC: The internet freedom community is well aware of all the consequences of restrictions, shutdowns and blockages. There are many great specialists in this community around the world who helped us in Belarus to cope with the situation.
What we need is to promote the right to the Internet or the right to connect as a truly basic human right and to seek a ban on the use of technologies that violate this right. Of course, in such matters there is a great responsibility on corporations and their commitment to the ethical use of the technologies they produce.
What we need is to promote the right to the Internet or the right to connect as a truly basic human right and to seek a ban on the use of technologies that violate this right.
The internet freedom community should become more actively involved in internet governance as a stakeholder and advisor in these processes. We all need to communicate more with the rest of the participants - business, government - wherever possible. It can be a long road, but that doesn't mean it's worth stopping. We already see that human rights issues are becoming important where they weren’t previously discussed. Digital rights are human rights, and by promoting this value we can make the digital world more fair and inclusive.