The oppressive regime in Belarus set a new law into effect today which tightens the already strict regulation of internet use by making it illegal for Belarussians to visit foreign websites. The Eastern European country established an extreme level of control over internet use last year when it issued Presidential Decree No. 60 , under which ISPs are required to block access to certain types of content and specific URLs – which are so far not disclosed to the public. A similar, US version of this legislation – the Communications Decency Act of 1996 - sparked controversy in the mid-90’s and was eventually overturned for violating First Amendment rights.
The new law is ostensibly to regulate online commerce – that is, making sure only domestic domains are used to provide online services – and violating it will result in a misdemeanor with a fine not to exceed the equivalent of about $125. However, the implications could be much more serious than a slap on the wrist and a small fine. The law requires that internet cafes and individuals providing internet access to other parties be responsible for any illegal browsing or e-commerce, and failure to report illegal usage of foreign sites could result in the business being shut down. This kind of excessive punishment essentially discourages public internet use. The government also has authorization to change and add to the list of banned sites – a level of governmental control that civil rights groups are distressed by ( Freedom House rates Belarus’ press freedom “not free” with “substantial political censorship”).
Meanwhile, Spain has passed anti-piracy legislation remarkably similar to the SOPA bill. Under the new Sinde law , a special commission will be formed to react to copyright infringement complaints made by rightsholders. Slightly less draconian than SOPA, the websites will have ten days to remove the infringing material before being shut down. However, the bill has generated major opposition in Spain to what people see as a misleading law enacted for the benefit of Hollywood.
These battles mark crucial junctions for the future of open internet. Just as the rejection of the Communications Decency Act was a pivotal moment in the creation of an unrestricted and dynamic internet landscape back in 1996, laws like Decree No. 60, Sinde, and SOPA/PIPA could set the tone for a more closed, stifled, and creatively impoverished world wide web.