Washington, 16 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Experts say that strict government regulations and a state monopoly on all communication systems are seriously hampering Belarus' progress along the information superhighway.
Belarus began its journey down the superhighway in 1992 by undertaking a serious effort to develop the nation's computer telecommunications systems.
At the same time officials began to craft a series of rules and regulations that would put Internet users in Belarus under tight government control.
Calvin Harris, an American lawyer currently living in Belarus, told RFE/RL that in 1993 the Belarusian government issued the "Temporary Rules for Issuing Licenses to Economic Entities for Conducting Certain Kinds of Activity in Communications and Information" which includes the requirement for all Internet service providers in Belarus to obtain a license from the government.
Harris is working for the Central and East European Law Initiative -- a U.S.-based program that supports legal reform in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He has been researching government controls over the Internet in Belarus.
Harris says one Belarus Internet service provider told him that the process of obtaining the license presented a number of problems which limited his ability to operate successfully.
For example, Harris says that in order for the provider to get his license, he had to state his intention to connect through BelPAK, the Internet division of the state-owned enterprise Beltelekom. Harris adds that had the provider not agreed to this connection, he would not have received his license.
Moreover, Harris says the license agreement contains a clause in which the service provider agrees to unannounced "technical inspections" by the Ministry of Communications.
The license also requires Internet service providers to annually give the Ministry of Communications a list of their subscribers.
Still, despite these restrictions, Internet connectivity progressed in Belarus.
By 1993, Belarus had established a network between a number of government institutes and universities through a provider called EUnet/Relcom. At the time, the available services were limited to electronic mail, teleconferencing and other basic communication services.
By the end of 1994, Belarus got its first permanent Internet connection via a dedicated line from Minsk to Warsaw with the assistance of the Polish Academic and Research Network NASK.
Today there are several major Internet service providers in Belarus, all with different levels of services, prices, and technical support, including:
-- BelPAK -- the Internet division of Beltelekom which has a monopoly on communication lines in Belarus.
-- UNIBEL -- an education and scientific network run by the Computer and Analytical Center of the Ministry of Education.
-- BAS-Net -- the network of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences.
-- SprintNet -- a joint venture of U.S. Sprint and a number of communication enterprises from the former Soviet Union created to provide various telecommunications services within the former USSR.
-- High Energy Physics Institute in Minsk -- has access to the German research DESY satellite, but does not have a license to provide access to others in Belarus.
-- Open Contact, Ltd. -- a commercial provider.
-- The Belarusian Railroad -- a small service provider which was initially set up to cater solely to the railroad system, but is licensed to provide service to others.
-- NetSat/DirecPC -- a satellite service available in Belarus through OverDrive, Ltd.
Harris says despite the tough government controls on Internet service providers, there is currently no regulation on the content of Internet transmissions. However, there are a number of laws and presidential decrees that limit what a person can say in Belarus, especially in regards to the government.
Harris says while government monitoring of Internet transmissions is not explicitly mentioned in any of the regulations, it remains a "worrisome possibility."
Adds Harris: "While it is no secret that Internet communication by its very nature is not secure, particular conditions in Belarus make it relatively simple for the government to monitor the Internet communications of its citizens .... Furthermore, the fact that all communication lines flow through the governmentally-controlled BelPAK makes it that much easier for would-be government snoops to monitor large numbers of communications by Belarusian citizens."
Harris says that as far as he knows, the Belarus government has not blocked access to any web sites it considers unacceptable.
Peter Kasaty, an American working in Belarus, told RFE/RL that Internet restrictions in Belarus are not only limited to service providers. Kasaty is an Internet expert for the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX).
Kasaty says the Belarus Ministry of Communications requires that all modems be certified by their lab at the user's cost which equals about 20 dollars -- an expensive proposition in a country where the average income is approximately 60 dollars a month.
Kasaty says the certification is labeled as a "technical" requirement and some brands of modems have actually been unable to pass. However, Kasaty adds that even if a user has the exact brand and model of modem that has already passed the certification process, each modem must be independently inspected. He says that although the test itself takes less than half an hour, the wait is usually a minimum of several days before certification is complete.
Kasaty says that e-mail accounts are the way most Belarusians access the Internet. As a result, he says, Internet users are charged for both sending and receiving electronic mail. However, just like most Internet users in the West, they also have to pay a set-up and a monthly fee.
Says Kasaty: "The Internet is way too expensive for most Belarusians should they actually have the money to buy a computer."
In fact, it appears that Internet use in Belarus is quite low compared to other East European countries.
According to the 1997 summer issue of the magazine "In Your Pocket Publications," Belarus has 0.02 Internet hosts (computers connected to the Internet) per 1,000 people in comparison to 1.37 for Poland and 5.46 for Estonia.
An Internet expert in Belarus, who prefers to remain unnamed, told RFE/RL that tight government controls and a state monopoly on telecommunications is strangling Internet growth in Belarus.
In addition, he says, the nation has not developed an effective telecommunication infrastructure outside Minsk, the capital city, which will certainly cause problems for Internet growth across the nation in the future. He adds that Belarusian networks are also hampered because they are forced to use out-of-date technology.
Added to these problems, he says, is that the general population does not have enough information about the Internet nor enough money to utilize it even if it understood how the network works.
He concludes: "If we do not change this tradition, Belarusian networking will constantly lag behind, which will certainly influence service prices and general accessibility."