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Belarus Has Shut Down the Internet Amid a Controversial Election

Internet connectivity and cellular service in Belarus have been down since Sunday evening, after sporadic outages early that morning and throughout the day. The connectivity blackout, which also includes landline phones, appears to be a government-imposed outage that comes amid widespread protests and increasing social unrest over Belarus’ presidential election Sunday.

The ongoing shutdown has further roiled the country of about 9.5 million people, where official election results this morning indicated that five-term president Aleksandr Lukashenko had won a sixth term with about 80 percent of the vote. Around the country, protests against Lukashenko’s administration, including criticisms of his foreign policy and handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, grew in the days leading up to the election and exploded on Sunday night. The government has responded to the protests by mobilizing police and military forces, particularly in Minsk, the capital. Meanwhile, opposition candidates and protesters say the election was rigged and believe the results to be illegitimate.

On Monday, Lukashenko said in an interview that the internet outages were coming from abroad, and were not the result of a Belarusian government initiative. Belarus’ Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, in a statement on Sunday blamed large distributed denial-of-service attacks, particularly against the country’s State Security Committee and Ministry of Internal Affairs, for causing “problems with equipment.” The Belarusian government-owned ISP RUE Beltelecom said in a statement Monday that it is working to resolve the outages and restore service after “multiple cyberattacks of varying intensity.” Outside observers have met those claims with skepticism.

“The truth of what’s going on in Belarus isn’t really knowable right now, but there’s no indication of a DDoS attack. It can’t be ruled out, but there’s no external sign of it that we see,” says Alp Toker, director of the nonpartisan connectivity tracking group NetBlocks. After midnight Sunday, NetBlocks observed an outage that went largely unnoticed by the Belarus population, given the hour, but the country’s internet infrastructure became increasingly wobbly afterward. “Then just as polls are opening in the morning, there are more disruptions, and those really continue and progress,” says Toker. “Then the major outage that NetBlocks detected started right as the polls were closing and is ongoing.”

The disruption extended even to virtual private networks—a common workaround for internet outages or censorship—most of which remain unreachable. “Belarus hasn’t had a lot of investment in circumvention technologies, because people there haven’t needed to,” Toker says.

Meanwhile, there are a few anecdotal indications that the outages were planned, and even possibly that the government warned some businesses and institutions ahead of time. A prescient report on Saturday from the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets included an interview with a salesperson who warned journalists attempting to buy SIM cards that the government had indicated widespread connectivity outages might be coming as soon as that night.

As far back as last Tuesday, August 4, a post circulating on Telegram claimed to show a screenshot of an email from a Belarusian bank employee warning customers that digital banking outages might be coming.

“I think everyone understands it is caused by government, but operators do not want to recognize it publicly,” Franak Viačorka, a journalist in Minsk, told WIRED. “It’s like nobody knows what’s happening. No one wants to take responsibility.”

The outages come as governments around the world, including in Iran, Ethiopia, and India, have increasingly used internet blackouts as a tool of repression and authoritarian control to try to quash mass protests and unrest. Connectivity outages around elections have also become more common; so far this year, the governments of Burundi, Guinea, Togo, and Venezuela all disrupted social media platforms during their elections or the night before.

“Sadly, the policy of internet shutdowns is gaining popularity around the world,” says Lukasz Olejnik, an independent cybersecurity researcher and consultant. “More and more governments either have or want to obtain such a capability, and it’s technically possible to architect networks in ways that allow this.”