In early August, Belarus—sometimes called Europe’s last dictatorship—went almost entirely offline for 72 hours. On Wednesday August 26, for approximately one hour, Belarus shut down key parts of the capital’s internet once again; allegedly, the order had come directly from official state bodies.
The earlier outage disrupted communication across the protesting nation, but a slow trickle of footage, largely via minor Telegram channel NEXTA Live, broadcasted riot police attacking peaceful protesters and deploying rubber bullets and stun grenades; phone videos shot from balconies revealed guards violently beating detainees in prison yards. As the country gradually came back online, depictions of protesters’ dark red-blue bruising, as well as claims of sadistic torture, rape threats, and sexual assault began circulating on social networks and news sites. In the center of the conflict, the encrypted app Telegram aided by a wide range of proxies and virtual private network usage became pivotal in both disseminating information and protest organization.
With the internet outages in Belarus, we see just what can happen when an over-dependence on centralized internet and a select few major companies meets national censorship, and what—if anything—can be done about it.
“When they turned off the internet… we didn’t know what was happening,” said one protester, Alena, over Facebook messenger. “I shook with indignation when information about the violence began [to spread]—the beatings, assaults, insults, shootings… All of this has now flooded the internet… We are all in collective shock.”
“When the internet was back, it was interesting—horror and pride at the same time,” another protester, Kirila (a pseudonym), said of the unprecedented images and discussions of police brutality via Reddit messenger. (The protesters are identified here by first name and pseudonym only, to protect their identities.)
The wave of protests in Belarus first began after its 65-year-old leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has presided over the nation since 1994, claimed to have won an 80 percent victory in elections on August 9. This was widely contested by protesters and foreign observers. Opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanouskaya claimed the victory, but later left the country for neighboring Lithuania, apparently under duress. Multiple outlets reported thousands of protesters detained, at least one person killed, and dozens injured in the clashes; the reporting was supported by a mass of citizen documentation from the former Soviet nation. For 72 hours, attempts were made to censor the outpour.
“Starting on August 9… somewhere around 9:00 am, the internet started to be shut down,” recalled Maksimas Milta, Head of Communication and Development Unit at the Belorusian European Humanities University, the university now exiled and based in Lithuania. Milta was on the ground in Minsk when the first websites were attacked: an independent platform for tracking voting, Golos, and a crowdsourcing platform which allows users to report incidences of electoral fraud, Zubr.
“Two hours later, basically YouTube access was blocked, in order for people not to be able to watch streams, then the entire internet started to be shut down,” said Milta. Google, Facebook, and WhatsApp all suffered access issues, as well as independent news sources. Belarusian telecom providers issued apologies for mass outages, and ultimately, the end-to-end encrypted messaging app Telegram was one of the only services left.
“We enabled our anti-censorship tools in Belarus so that Telegram remained available for most users there. However, the connection is still very unstable as internet is at times shut off completely in the country,” Telegram founder Pavel Durov wrote on Twitter on August 10.
The NEXTA Live Telegram channel, run by 22-year-old Stepan Putilo based in Poland, saw its user base explode in a matter of days. At the beginning of the protests, only a few hundred thousand people knew of its existence. Now, it has more than two million subscribers.
NEXTA poses enough of an apparent threat to the authorities that according to its young founder, Putilo is “wanted” in both Belarus and Russia and facing up to 15 years imprisonment, he told the German outlet Tagesschau. Putilo will not publicly reveal his location in Warsaw, citing threats and hate messag