Belarus internet shutdown: how did it happen?

Belarus has a new-but-old president Alexander Lukashenko, but some people just don’t buy that he was re-elected fair and square. The internet shutdown only reinforced suspicions that the results might be counterfeit.

“Once they shut down the internet, it was clear they are hiding something,” Michael Klimarev, executive director at the Internet Protection Society,  told CyberNews. The internet shutdown was expected, he said, but it wasn’t done professionally.

Interfeedia tweet screenshot

Maksimas Milta, Head of the Communication and Development Unit at European Humanities University told us how exactly the shutdown has happened. Both experts agree - the disruption of the internet is likely to repeat as Belarusians are not quite happy with the official results.

NetBlocks tweet screenshot

How did it start?

Maksimas Milta told CyberNews that the shutdown slowly began on Sunday morning. First, it was YouTube and Messenger that stopped working.

Then the authorities got hold of two important election platforms, with the stated aim of safeguarding the election’s transparency. One of them - Golas (“vote” or “voice” in Belarusian) - is designed to register your vote and report any possible violations in constituencies. You have to sign in with your unique phone number and upload a picture of your ballot so the platform can register your vote.

Another important platform is Zubr - a map for reporting violations in real-time.

Read more: Nikolai Kvantaliani: for how long will Belarus be able to block the internet without hurting business?

“So first the authorities blocked these platforms so that people could not observe news about possible violations in real-time,” said Mr. Milta.

In the afternoon the whole mobile internet was shut down, most of the media outlets were unavailable. “Only a few independent media outlets were available,” said Mr. Milta. The biggest Belarusian independent website and news agency were available, while other independent media, such as Free Radio Europe, were out of reach.

Viber, WhatsApp, and Messenger were blocked, and the authorities even tried to block Telegram, the most popular app for information sharing in Belarus.

When the electoral districts were closed, home internet was blocked too, said Mr. Milta. It was impossible to reach any independent media.

Maksimas Milta
Maksimas Milta

“At 10 pm, clashes with OMON started, and the internet was blocked completely. It was impossible to reach even application stores and buy a VPN client,” said Mr. Milta. In Belarus, VPNs are banned.

Only at 3 or 4 am was it possible to connect to some services via proxy: “We are talking about 9.5 million people who were refused the internet.”

He is sure that in case protests continue, so will the disruption of the internet.

The shutdown was not successful?

“We foresaw this would happen. Shutdowns are not rare in the world. We just didn’t know how it would be done in Belarus,” Michael Klimarev, executive director at the Internet Protection Society, told CyberNews.

He was prepared for the worst, and Belarus came close to that scenario.

Sebastian Plocharski tweet screenshot

“The worst thing that could happen is the shutdown of the whole country. Technically they didn’t succeed to do that as some information was getting through,” said Mr. Klimarev. But the authorities managed to hurt the business.

“The ATMs, various services, Github and Google Docs, Slack, and other online services that are vital to business operations were down. Some medical equipment didn’t work, navigation for transport control. About half of Belarus was shut down. If that lasts for a short period, it’s ok, but if it goes on for a week, the consequences for the business will be immense,” said Mr. Klimarev.

Michael Klimarev
Michael Klimarev

He reckons that the authorities didn’t succeed in shutting down the internet.

“Look at Lukashenko. He is senior and is not tech-savvy. And the team he’s surrounded himself with is just like him. They are trying to control something but they do not succeed. Of course, you can’t access YouTube but you can communicate with each other. People pass the information along,” said Mr. Klimarev.

He is also sure the presidential elections were not transparent.

“Once they shut down the internet, it was clear they are hiding something. To put it mildly, the elections were not transparent. We don’t believe Belarusians elected Mr. Lukashenko. He hijacked power,” said Mr. Klimarev.