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Belarus makes it a crime to visit foreign websites

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On January 6th, a law making it illegal for Belarusian citizens or residents to visit any foreign website will go into effect. Businesses are also restricted to only using Belarus domains and internet cafe proprietors are responsible for monitoring and reporting any violations or else face charges themselves.

Belarus website
Belarus website

The Eastern European country of Belarus, already known for censorship and severe limitations on internet usage, is set to make its citizens' web access even more restricted. On January 6th, a law will go into effect that makes it illegal for Belarusian citizens or residents to visit any foreign websites. Furthermore, businesses or individuals may not provide services through domains not registered in Belarus, and owners of internet cafes or other such businesses can face charges if they don't monitor and report any violations of this law. This last provision even applies to individual citizens hosting guests in their home — if someone hits a foreign website, the computer's owner is bound by law to report it, or face charges himself.

Reports Without Borders has details on how Belarus plans to enforce this law: a decree issued in February of 2010 requires Internet Service Providers to register with the Ministry of Communications and Information. As part of this registration, ISPs must provide details on its network, systems, and information resources, and also disclose every device connected to their networks, including computers and mobile phones. Similarly, users accessing public computers in an internet cafe (or through any other type of shared connection) need to identify themselves, and usage records are kept for one year.

While an individual caught breaking this law will be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to the equivalent of $125 US, there's a host of issues for businesses, journalists, and websites around the world. The US Library of Congress gives the example of a Belarusian citizen purchasing something from — since Amazon is not based in Belarus, this would be a violation of the law and Amazon could find itself mixed up in a legal battle for not respecting the local ordinance. In this case, Amazon and other foreign websites might just start blocking traffic from Belarus to save themselves the trouble.

Local business will want to be especially cautious about not using foreign domains — the Belarus tax authorities, police, and secret police will be investigating and prosecuting potential offenses. Domestic and international journalists will also want to take care, as their ability to do their jobs will likely be even more impaired once this law goes into effect. Freedom of the press is already severely restricted in Belarus (Reporters Without Borders ranked the country 154 out of 178 in its 2010 Press Freedom Index), and it sounds like this law will only make the country's climate of censorship even more oppressive for both journalists and the average citizen.