The small landlocked ex-Warsaw Pact country of Belarus has cracked down on internet freedom, with its Communications Ministry issuing a new decree (in Belarusian) that specifically targets ‘proxy-servers, anonymous networks like Tor and others.’
‘The state inspection, upon discovering Internet resources, anonymizing services (proxy-servers, anonymous networks like Tor and others), that allow Internet users to access online resources whose identifiers are included on the limited access list, will add the identifiers of these Internet resources and anonymizing services to the list as well.’
The latest figures from Tor show that some 8000 Belarusians use the anonymity network on a daily basis (the population of Belarus is only 9.5 million), and it is certain that (as in Russia) VPN use is also very popular.
Internet freedom activist Anton Nesterov explained that, regarding Tor, the government would likely block not just the website, but Tor exit nodes,
‘They can just block torproject.org and stop there, but if they talk about blocking Tor, blocking nodes is what it means.’
Tor public exit node IP addresses are openly published, which combined with the limited number of these volunteer-run servers, makes them an easy target for repressive governments seeking to censor the internet, and are a well-known weakness of the Tor network. The obsfsproxy tool, however, which uses ‘pluggable transports’ to hide Tor traffic, can help evade such blocks.
Given that even the Great Firewall of China (by far the most extensive and sophisticated censorship operation in the world) struggles to defeat VPN use, it is unlikely that any attempt to block VPN in Belarus will be very effective, although the Communications Ministry may attempt to block the IP ranges used by better known VPN providers.
Belarus’s crackdown on internet freedom comes at a time when Russia is also considering imposing restrictions on anti-surveillance and anti-censorship software.