Twitter, VPN services in Belarus disrupted during violent crackdown

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko addresses the 26th Annual OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Session in Minsk on July 5, 2017. Internet groups said websites in Belarus were being block and throttled amid ongoing protests disputing the results of the presidential election, which Lukashenko is reported to have won. (Flickr / OSCEPA)

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Belarus’ crackdown on protests following the re-election of an authoritarian leader also appears to include widespread internet blackouts and traffic throttling on major websites.

Twitter confirmed Monday it was experiencing blocking and throttling in Belarus amid ongoing protests disputing the results of the presidential election. The company didn’t specifically attribute the disruptions to the government, though it said “Internet shutdowns are hugely harmful. They fundamentally violate basic human rights & the principles of the #OpenInternet.”

The statement from Twitter comes after a number of journalists and demonstrators in the region reported that virtual private networks appeared to be blocked, and NetBlocks.org, which tracks digital disruptions, said shutdowns had stretched for nearly 24 hours at press time. Independent media sites, alternative voting resources and roughly half the foreign traffic typically entering the country also had been blocked, according to Access Now, a digital rights organization.

Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country for 26 years, said that protesters demonstrating against the results of the election, in which Lukashenko claimed to win 80% of the vote, would be met with force. Opposition parties have said the election results had been falsified.

Police responded to a largely peaceful crowd of protesters on Sunday by firing rubber bullets, stun grenades and at one point drove a van into a crowd, killing at least one person, according to a Belrarussian human rights group. Videos have also surfaced of law enforcement officials arresting people, apparently at a whim. Authorities have arrested roughly 2,000 people throughout the country, according to government numbers.

The demonstrations represent the largest threat to Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule since he was initially elected in 1994, according to reporters on the ground. Middle-class voters have been clamoring for change in the country amid a flattening economy, a trend only exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters, as well as the use of internet shutdowns to hinder the ability of the Belarusian people to share information about the election and the demonstrations,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

The human rights group Amnesty International also decried the government for its use of “appalling violence” toward demonstrators.

Local media outlets also reported that cellular connections and city telephones were blocked ahead of the election.

“We express concern over the deterioration of the human rights situation in Belarus, including reports of alleged mobile internet jamming, arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists, and harassment of human rights defenders and members of the political opposition in the country,” Access Now said in a statement. “These reported incidents of harassment are compounding in an atmosphere of fear and panic among the people of Belarus.”

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Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus, internet traffic, Twitter, virtual private network (VPN)
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