WWW: The limits of developing extensive infrastructure

Mikhail Doroshevich, Marina Sokolova

Summary

At the end of 2015, the number of Internet users aged 15 to 74 reached nearly 70% of the population. Belarus moved up from the 50th place in 2010 to the 36th in the country infrastructure development ranking, leaving all its neighbors behind. Despite the advance in the ranking, the gap between urban and rural areas in terms of Internet access remains unbridged. The Internet becomes increasingly popular as a mass medium, google.com, vk.com, mail.ru, yandex.by and tut.by being the most frequently visited websites.

Although well-developed public services are highly required, government sites still have not been brought into conformity with the legislation yet. The development of e-commerce and e-government actualizes the issue of protection of personal data of users, because Belarusian laws do not adequately secure the rights of data subjects. The lack of appropriate procedures to regulate Internet access is still a serious problem.

Trends
The infrastructure above all

As in previous years, the infrastructure remains a priority of the policy of the development of information society. Belarus moved up from the 50th place in 2010 to the 36th in the country infrastructure development ranking, leaving all its neighbors behind: the Russian Federation is ranked 45th, Moldova 66th, Ukraine 79th, Latvia 37th, Lithuania 40th, and Poland 44th.

As of the beginning of 2015, the proportion of wireless broadband subscribers constituted a little over 48.0%. 1 At the end of 2015, the international Internet gateway capacity reached 610 Gbps, which is five times more than in 2010. Experts predict that by 2020, the gateway capacity will be at 2 Tbps. 2

The International Telecommunication Union ranks Belarus 25th in the world with 28.8% fixed broadband subscribers (17.4% in 2010) and 23rd with 57.1 per 100 households accessing the Internet. Despite the relatively good performance rating, the problem of access for all is far from being resolved. Throughout the country, nearly half of all households (43.0%) do not have a possibility to use Internet resources and services. In rural areas, this proportion makes up 60.0%.

The fact that Beltelecom and the National Center for Traffic Exchange remain the only entities permitted to handle connections with ISPs outside of Belarus is one of the causes of this situation. As a consequence, commercial providers face considerable difficulties. Only five out of 66 active independent providers operate in all cities, 37 in Minsk, eight in Brest, five in Vitebsk, nine in Gomel, four in Grodno and four in Mogilev.

The audience and the use of the Internet

In December 2015, the number of Internet users aged 15 to 74 increased by 80,997 year-on-year to almost 70% of the population in this age group (Table 1). 3 87% of them go online every day, 85% have fixed access, and 59%, mostly young people (77.5%), access the Internet from mobile phones and tablets.

Year 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Number of users, million 3.024 3.45 4.14 4.62 4.85 5.00 5.08
Table 1. Increase in the number of Internet users
Note. According to Gemius Audience.

In 2015, SATIO Group reported a slightly smaller proportion of men among Belarusian Internet users (47.9%) than women (52.1%). Most of those going online for news are young people (40.4%) and persons aged 30 to 44 (34.2%).

The age composition of the Internet audience has changed significantly over the past six years: the proportion of users at the age of 55 to 74 has increased six times, and the proportion of those aged 19 to 24 has nearly halved (Table 2).

Age 2009 2015
15 to 18 8.59 5.03
19 to 24 32.67 17.79
25 to 34 28.39 27.99
35 to 44 17.25 21.88
45 to 54 11.14 15.64
55 to 74 1.97 11.67
Table 2: Age composition of the Internet audience, 2009 and 2015, %
Note: According to SATIO

The popularity of the Internet as a mass medium is increasing. In 2005, only 18% of users considered the Internet as a reliable source of information. Their proportion increased to 63.8% in 2015 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Distribution of answers to the question “Which media do you turn to first?”, % 4

As before, most users go online in search of information (90%), the proportion of news readers thus remaining at 50%. The proportion of visitors to online networking services slightly increased from 70% in 2014 to 75% in 2015, and those making payments online was up from 20% to 25%, respectively. 5

Purpose Age
6 to 10 11 to 15 16 to 24 25 to 24 55 to 64 65 and over
Information 61.1 89.4 94.7 96.3 93.2 84.7
Audio and video 75.4 90.4 92.8 78.5 58.7 45.8
Social networking websites 37.8 86.4 95.9 75.8 61.1 47.7
Computer games 87.4 87.6 65.3 39.2 22.9 13.2
E-mail 13.1 37.3 66.8 56.6 55.6 51.9
Goods and services 0.0 4.5 39.6 34.2 20.1 15.7
Education 54.8 93.9 68.0 7.9 2.2 0.8
Financial operations 0.4 23.9 31.6 20.9 9.1
Table 3. Internet users by search purposes and age in 2015, % 6

According to Beltelecom, internal resources provide 5% of the external gateway, while over 40% of the traffic falls on VKontakte and mail.ru.

Google.com, vk.com, mail.ru, yandex.by and tut.by remain the most popular services. Among the news resources, the proportion of news.tut.by is increasing (from 34.7% in 2013 to 39% in 2015). The proportion of news.mail.ru thus goes down (from 23.1% in 2013 to 18.5% in 2015). So does the proportion of news.yandex.by (from 18.1% in 2013 to 14% in 2015). The new website onliner.by has rocketed into top three with 21.9% in 2015.

Among the social networking services, VKontakte is still leading being followed by odnoklassniki.ru and Facebook. A poll by SATIO showed that Belarusian Internet users began to commonly mention instagram.com in 2015 for the first time (7.1%). 7

Organizations use the Internet mainly to browse for information (98%). The vast majority of them carries out banking transactions and provides information to customers online (96% and 73%, respectively). As a result, they improve the working conditions and their image (87.2% and 85.3%, respectively). This leads to staff cuts only in 29.3% of cases. 8 Almost all business entities fill out tax returns (93%) and provide departmental reporting (88.7%) online. 9

E-services provided by the state

Convenient services and resources provided by government institutions are increasingly required by individuals and the business community. To a certain extent, these requirements are met by the results of the Strategy of the Development of Information Society in 2010–2015, particularly the establishment of the National Center for e-Service and the united computerized system of government agencies, the state public-key management system, and the interdepartmental system of the electronic document management. Almost all government agencies updated their websites on a regular basis.

However, according to research conducted by governmental and non-governmental organizations, sites of government agencies have not been brought into conformity with the legislation. 10 Experts point at the inertia of government agencies, the lack of motivation for reengineering of administrative processes, insufficient investment and poor employment of the public-private partnership as the main factors inhibiting the development of e-government services. 11

As a result, the interaction between business and government agencies is reduced to obtaining information about their operations (83%) and templates to be filled in (92%). 12 Individuals visit sites of government agencies and organizations on rare occasions. According to a survey by the Legal Transformation Center and the sociological laboratory NOVAK (2015), only 10% of individuals often visit such sites and 36% never do.

The resolution of these issues depends on whether the government will be able to implement a visitor-friendly strategy, in particular:

Protection of personal data and restriction of access to electronic resources

The development of e-commerce (in 2014, the market size of e-commerce in Belarus amounted to USD 420 million; in 2012, the number of Internet shops increased 250%) 14 and e-government services actualizes the problem of the protection of personal data of users. According to Lawtrend, the technical protection of personal data is important to 85% of respondents and very important to 55%. The online privacy is important to 85% and very important to 50%. A legal analysis in this field showed that

Restricted access to Internet resources remains a serious problem. Judging by the answers of respondents in a survey conducted by the Legal Transformation Center and NOVAK laboratory, 23% of users came across access restrictions personally and 12% had this more than once; 19% experienced a violation of the right to freely exchange information online and 9% had this more than once.

In 2015, the Ministry of Information reported restricted access to 41 websites (for the distribution of extremist materials, information for drug dealing, inappropriate promotion of medicines, child pornography and alcoholic beverages). Restrictions were lifted from four of them after violations were eliminated.

An adequate judicial procedure has not been ensured yet. The Ministry of Information is entitled to block websites at its own discretion, and legislative acts 16 do not provide for any appeal against orders restricting public access in court. Some experts believe that such measures are not aimed at combating specific violations of the legislation, but at intimidating owners of websites to keep them under control. 17 No wonder that Freedom House ranks Belarus ‘not free.’ 18

Conclusion

A number of trends emerged in the previous years, continued in 2015, i. e. the state monopoly on the external gateway; the growing number of users (the increase slowed down in 2013); unequal opportunities to use the Internet in urban and rural areas; the growing popularity of online resources and the dominant position of Russian portals. The lack of appropriate procedures to regulate Internet access is still an acute problem.

There are some new trends as well. In response to the individuals’ demand for convenient services of government agencies, the authorities started monitoring websites of the executive branch, healthcare and higher education institutions. As a result, recommendations on the modernization of those sites were made.

The implementation of e-government projects and the growing e-commerce market actualized the problem of the technical protection of personal data and legislative insurance of online privacy. In this area, the increasing public interest has stimulated the development of recommendations on the harmonization of Belarusian and European legislation. However, no one can be sure that these recommendations will be heard and followed.

The Internet gap between Minsk and other cities, not to mention rural areas, will slowly narrow first of all because the government strategy on the development of the extensive infrastructure has exhausted itself, and the weak competition does not foster high-quality and versatile services. The proportion of users at the age of 65 and over will increase mainly because of the demographic aging of society. Only medical records and the mass media will be digitized hundred percent.

As the Internet advertising market is shrinking, the informatization measures envisaged by the government strategy will not lead to significant changes. Neither will the measures of the previous strategy of the development of information society and the program on the development of electronic services.

The development of e-government services will be based on tactical innovations initiated by enthusiasts in various government agencies and organizations. Gaps in the legislation and the deep-rooted law enforcement practice will provoke breaches of the users’ right to freely access information and have protected privacy online.