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Republic of Belarus Outlaws Viewing Foreign Websites, Attempts to Censor More Than China [UPDATED]

Updated content follows below.

There’s a lot of talk that SOPA will essentially destroy U.S. Internet and cause digital plague that will creep out to the web at large. If you needed a case study, keep on eye Belarus, which has just illegalized the use of foreign websites. The law is aimed chiefly at companies conducting business on the web, but extends to your average citizen as well. If you live in Belarus and initiate a transaction with a non-domestic domain, you are breaking the law, guilty of a misdemeanor, and can face fines of up to $125.

Where the real complications come in, for those inside and outside Belarus, is the extent to which content and service providers can be held responsible. For instance, the law says that Belarusian cafes that provide Internet access will be liable for any illegal activity that takes place on their network if the illegal transaction is not properly recorded and reported to authorities. This includes simply viewing foreign content. Likewise, any domain, Amazon.com for example, that unwittingly sells to a Belarusian may be breaking Belarusian law itself, opening itself up to lawsuits. That being said, the law is a strong incentive for cafes to stop offering Wi-Fi, and for all kinds of websites to start actively blocking access from Belarus.

Of course, the law also comes part and parcel with a government website blacklist that will be handed out to Belarusian ISPs. The list is intended to include websites of pornographic and “extremist nature,” whatever that means. And if you find yourself thinking “Oh, just like China then,” that’s not actually true; this is worse. While China blacklists sites like nobody’s business, it doesn’t literally ban all non-Chinese domains like Belarus will starting January 6th. Chances are that this move will not work out particularly well for Belarus on the whole, but it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out and whether or not the restrictions have immediately visible negative effects.

Information about the law from the Library of Congress:

It appears that business requests from Belarus cannot be served over the Internet if the service provider is using online services located outside of the country. The tax authorities, together with the police and secret police, are authorized to initiate, investigate, and prosecute such violations.

Additionally, the Law states that the owners and administrators of Internet cafés or other places that offer access to the Internet might be found guilty of violating this Law and fined and their businesses might be closed if users of Internet services provided by these places are found visiting websites located outside of Belarus and if such behavior of the clients was not properly identified, recorded, and reported to the authorities. The Law states that this provision may apply to private individuals if they allow other persons to use their home computers for browsing the Internet.

Commentators believe that these measures will lead to outside websites blocking access from Belarus. For example, suppose someone in Belarus buys something from Amazon, which is not a Belarusian company and thus is not registered in Belarus. The transaction is illegal, and so the Belarusian Attorney General would send a note to Amazon informing it that it is violating national law and might be sued.

UPDATE: Further investigation of the translated law has shown that it pertains almost entirely to commercial transactions. Content will still be blocked by the government (pornography and the like) and users will be tracked, but the principle illegal activity that the law is concerned with is doing business with commercial enterprises located outside of Belarus. The law will still probably cause many sites to cut off access from Belarus to avoid headaches, but how strictly non-commercial activity with foreign sites will be restricted will depend on how the law is interpreted and enforced. It’s still really bad though, and still worse than China. Update via Techdirt.

(via The Next Web)

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