Internet: Infrastructure, users, regulation

Mikhail Doroshevich, Marina Sokolova

Summary

By the end of 2014, Belarus totaled over 5 million Internet users, which constitutes 70% of the population aged 15 to 74. The Internet has become not only an integral part of everyday life, but also a platform for activities of state-controlled and private companies and organizations. Infrastructural development (like broadband Internet) remains a key element of the strategy of an information-oriented society. The download speed in Belarus is lower than in the neighboring countries and the cost of services is higher.

The Internet is still not available to all, which poses a serious problem when it comes to the offered e-government services. Only half of households have access to the Internet from home computers. The proportion of such households in rural districts is much lower than in urban areas.

The Belarusian authorities extensively use Internet surveillance and censorship technologies being armed with information exchange regulations legally adopted for this particular purpose.

Trends:
The use of the Internet by individuals and organizations

By the end of 2014, Belarus had over 5 million Internet users, which constitutes 70% of the population aged 15 to 74. Most of them (around 4.2 million people.) go online every day. They browse for information (90% of the users), use social networks (70%) and video services (55%), read news (50%), and make payments (20%). No less than 65% of Belarusian users have made online purchases at least once.

Foreign websites are still visited the most: google.com (the audience coverage at 67.81%), vk.com (57.24%), mail.ru (53.61%), and yandex.by (50.20%). Tut.by is among the top five with 47.89%, and onliner.by is the seventh with 28.50%.

The Internet has become not only an integral part of everyday life, but also a platform for activities of state-controlled and private companies and organizations. Almost all business entities submit tax declarations (91.0%) and departmental reports (80.6%) on the Internet; 29.7% of organizations fill in customs forms online; 18.6% of business entities went through the registration procedure online. The National Statistics Committee reported in 2014 that among organizations, which have their own websites, financial institutions lead with 95.7%; 67% are organizations that provide housing, social and personal services; 40.9% receive and 53.6% place orders online.

The Belarusian government is going to considerably expand the scope of e-services in the next year and a half. By January 1, 2016, all government agencies and legal entities with a government stake are to connect to a single electronic document management system. Currently, they receive less than half of documents (42.35%) and send only 31.4% in electronic form.

In 2014, new regulations on the access to information of public agencies specified the rules to obtain such information thus strongly limiting the access for individuals. A check of official websites of 180 national and local governments revealed that none of the sites complied with the national legislation.

Twenty years of .by domain

The .by domain has been on the net for 20 years totaling over 116,000 registered domain names. In recent years, the .by zone is ranked first in Europe in terms of growth: 55% of all domains in the Belarusian zone were registered in 2013–2014, Minsk city and the Minsk region being the leaders in this respect.

In August, the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) approved the Cyrillic domain .бел for Belarus in addition to the Latin .by. Domain names can be registered in the Russian and Belarusian languages provided that there will be a possibility of an apostrophe and the letters ‘ў’ and ‘і.’ The final decision on the delegation of the domain to the Presidential Operations and Analysis Center (domain zone administrator) and Unitary Enterprise Nadyozhnye Programmy (Reliable Programs) (technical administrator hoster.by) will be made in February 2015.

Infrastructural development

As in previous years, infrastructural development (particularly broadband Internet) remains a key element of the strategy of information-oriented society (see Table 1). By the end of 2015, 70% of the existing broadband subscriber lines are supposed to provide a bandwidth capacity of at least 10 Mbps.

Type of access 2010 2012 2013 2014
Broadband 52.40 69.68 70.78 73.15
Dial-up 18.70 4.90 4.60 4.86
Mobile (GPRS/EDGE/CDMA) 5.60 11.97 10.53 8.52
Other, do not know 23.03 14.29 14.12 13.47
Table 1. Types of Internet access, 2010–2014, % 8

Although the infrastructure is developing quite rapidly (in 2014, the exterior gateway capacity increased more than 15-fold against 2010 ), the growth of the number of users is slowing down. In 2013, the number of Belarusian Internet users increased by 223,000 persons (4.8%). In 2014, it increased by 157,000 (2.7%).

The download speed in Belarus is lower than in the neighboring countries and the cost of services is higher (see Figure 1). Users rate the average quality of data transmission services rendered by 45 leading providers 3.3 on a 1–5 scale.

Figure 1. Internet access: bit rates and prices 11

As before, any attempt to enhance the quality of Internet services would break against the state telecommunications monopoly (Beltelecom and the National Traffic Exchange Center). The progressive reduction in the number of providers in Belarus is symptomatic: there were 237 licensed providers in 2010, 213 in 2011 and 177 in 2013.

Internet is still not accessible for all, which is quite a problem given the advancing e-government services. Half of households have very limited access to the Internet: the proportion of those going on-line from home is at 86.3% and those using the Internet at school or at work make up 5.8%. But only half of households (51.9%) have access to the Internet from home computers. The proportion of such households in rural districts is much smaller than in urban areas (31.8 and 59.5%, respectively). The number of public multiple-access facilities has thus gone down to the level of 2009.

The ‘digital gap’ between urban and rural localities and between the capital and other areas with respect to the number of Internet users is still large. Competition in the market of stationary broadband access was observed in 18 cities, mostly big ones. In other localities, Beltelecom was the only provider. Forty-five percent of data transmission revenues were obtained from commercial activities in Minsk.

Users at the age of 55 and over constitute 10.7% of the Internet audience and those over 65 only make up 1.7%. The proportion of retirees (women over 55 and men over 60) is at 5.56% .

The legal framework of information exchange

Amendments to laws and regulations made in 2014 and orders issued by the executive branch significantly limit the free flow of information online:

In other words, the gap between the international obligations of Belarus and the national legislation is getting wider.

The present repressive legal regime in the field of the free exchange of information results in numerous violations of the rights of Internet users. The authorities make heavy use of various technologies of surveillance and censorship on the Internet. 18 Decree No.60 and regulations that followed directly postulated the need to monitor and technically filter web content. Providers must at their own expense procure, install and service hardware to support the system of operative-investigative measures (SOIM). 19 In spring 2012, Beltelecom implemented a SOIM project with the byfly network, and upgraded the screening software in summer. A “hardware and software package for research and monitoring of information resources of the national segment of the Internet” is about to be completed. 20

According to the annual Freedom on the Net report (May 2013 through May 2014), Belarus was rated “not free.” 21 This status was perfectly substantiated by the events of late 2014: on December 19, the authorities restricted access to the most popular Belarusian independent information online resources belapan.com, belapan.by, charter97.org, naviny.by, belaruspartisan.org, udf.by, 21.by, gazetaby.com, zautra.by, and racyja.com. Most of them were not available in the country until December 23. On December 19, tut.by and onliner.by were not available for several hours allegedly due to a DDoS-attack. Tut.by owner Yuri Zisser directly linked the blocking of independent sites with the attack on tut.by. The Belarusian Association of Journalists released a statement on December 22 saying that “the blocking of a number of sociopolitical websites, for which no one has claimed responsibility yet, is a legal mayhem. There are no legal grounds to limit the access to information about events in the country.” 22

Conclusion

While the number of Internet users in Belarus is increasing and the infrastructure is growing rapidly, half of households have very limited access to the Internet. Any attempt to enhance the quality of Internet services would break against the state telecommunications monopoly. Given the lack of information on the development of programs aimed at bridging the digital gap, reducing the cost of Internet services, and promoting media literacy, there is no reason to believe that this situation will change for the better in the coming years.

The amendments to laws and regulations made in 2014 and orders issued by the executive branch, and, generally, the legal regime in the field of the free exchange of information indicate that the gap between the international obligations of Belarus and the national legislation is getting wider.