How Telegram Users Found A Way Through Belarus's Internet Lockdown
By Robert Coalson August 12, 2020
A dynamic graphic posted to Twitter by the Internet-freedom advocacy group NetBlocks.org paints a grim picture. It shows Internet traffic in Belarus on the morning of August 9, the date of the country's bitterly disputed presidential election.
At approximately 8 a.m. local time, the bright lights indicating lively online traffic suddenly go dark.
"Exactly how the Internet was blocked in Belarus remains unknown," said Mikhail Klimaryev, executive director of the Russian Internet Defense Society, an advocacy group. "But we know that about 8 a.m. on Sunday, the connectivity of the Belarusian Internet…fell to approximately one-fifth, from 100 percent to 20 percent. And this was caused by the disconnection of one of the main provider links between Belarus and foreign operators -- Beltelekom."
Internet access remained severely restricted throughout the country at least until early on August 12, three nights and days during which the country was gripped by mass demonstrations against alleged falsification of the election whose official results handed authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a landslide win and a sixth term.
Despite this chokehold on the flow of information, the cloud-based instant-messaging service Telegram, which was developed in Russia and is now based in Dubai, has largely continued to function and has become an invaluable tool for an amorphous opposition and angry citizens seeking information and coordination.
"To a considerable extent, [Telegram] channels are coordinating the actions of the people who are taking to the streets and public squares because they are the means by which information and action plans are distributed," Andrey Bastunets, deputy head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, told Current Time, a Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "In this sense, it is playing a coordinating role."
"To be honest, [Telegram channels] have seized the initiative from the united opposition headquarters in terms of organizing protest actions," he added.
Journalists, observers, officials and others trying to follow the fast-paced and often harrowing events from outside Belarus, meanwhile, have turned to Telegram channels as a source of information -- often in the form of raw footage of the large, widespread protests and the violent crackdown by security forces. The government, too, has used Telegram channels to get its messages out at times.
Among the most prominent amid the protests has been the Warsaw-based NEXTA group of Telegram channels, which has seen its subscriber base balloon to more than 1.5 million since the postelection unrest began.
Although Lukashenka and other officials claimed the Internet outage was caused by "distributed denial-of-service" (DDoS) attacks from foreign sources, experts at NetBlocks and elsewhere are certain it was the result of a long-planned effort by the authorities.
In 2018, the Belarusian government announced a $2.5 million tender to purchase equipment capable of carrying out "deep packet inspection," a way of blocking unwanted Internet traffic that is used, for instance, in China and Iran. It is capable of identifying and rerouting or blocking specific packets of information. It has been described as being akin to "opening an envelope and reading its contents."
The system may have been tested during the summer. On June 19, Belarusian users reported difficulty using several Internet services, including Telegram and Viber. On July 15-16, they were temporarily unable to access VPN servers. At the time, the government blamed the problems on technical difficulties in Russia and Poland.
Klimaryev said that by 10 a.m. on August 9, it was clear that virtually all Belarus's Internet traffic was being passed through the National Traffic-Exchange Center (NTsOT), which was the organization that issued the 2018 tender.
"That was a serious sum of money for such equipment," he told RFE/RL. "We are talking about a fairly small country and I think the government decided to send all traffic through this equipment in order to control it."
France-based Internet consultant Pavel Lunin told RFE/RL that the Belarusian government was forced to block virtually all secure or encrypted Internet traffic, "biting off entire pieces of the Internet" in order to shut down sites such as YouTube.
"The problem is that it is not possible to partially block encrypted traffic and you have to block it in its entirety," he said.
The analysts at NetBlocks, however, believe that Minsk cast a wide net in its censorship intentionally, in order to make the action look more like an external attack. NetBlocks Director Alp Toker told Vice the Belarusian government is using a list of more than 10,000 keywords to block traffic from sites ranging from Facebook to Walmart.
"They're using deep packet inspection to block any Internet domain that contains one of thousands of popular brand names," he was quoted as saying. "This would give the impression of a malfunction."
"The only reason you would do this is to simulate a technical failure, [but] it would have taken serious planning," he added.
Telegram, however, has been largely successful in adopting its protocols to maintain its service during the Belarusian political crisis.
On August 10, Telegram co-creator and co-owner Pavel Durov posted on Twitter that "we enabled our anti-censorship tool in Belarus so that Telegram remained available to most users there." He noted, though, that the "connection is still very unstable."
RFE/RL's Belarus Service, which is a surrogate information source that is financed by a grant from the U.S. Congress, is one of the local media outlets that has been affected by the shutdown.
"Telegram is practically the only means of communication in Belarus," said service Deputy Director Bohdan Andrusyshyn. "We have been placing news items on our Telegram channel as quickly as we produced them."
Telegram channels "are definitely a very important source of information," Bastunets said. "Not always verified, but important nonetheless. It is much easier to get access to Telegram channels than to information provided by Belarusian or foreign websites."
Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson with reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mark Krutov and Current Time correspondent Irina Romaliiskaya. RFE/RL's Belarus Service also contributed to this report.
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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