Belarus Internet Governance Forum: No Civil Society Dialogue from Behind Bars

Anastasiya Zhyrmont / Nov 29, 2023

The fifth Belarus Internet Governance Forum (IGF.BY 2023) took place November 15 in Minsk under the tagline of open dialogue on the development of Bynet. Bynet is Belarus’ “national internet” — and the use of the term was the conference’s first major red flag. Organizers welcomed a myriad of international stakeholders, but essentially excluded civil society. Representatives from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Réseaux IP Européens Network Coordination Center (RIPE NCC) were fundamentally the only delegates from non-corporate, non-governmental entities (the third sector) — the conference’s second major red flag. Speakers ranged from government officials to cyber security experts and software developers; only a mere three of whom appeared to be women — of course, another red flag. 

At Access Now, a global human rights organization fighting for human rights in the digital age, we question the integrity of such an exclusionary structure, and ask how a conference purporting to bring stakeholders together “as equals in discussions on issues pertaining to the Internet” can do so while some of the most integral, informed voices are stricken. The IGF.BY 2023 farce goes against the IGF’s core principles, and here we explain why.

There is no dialogue behind bars

Earlier this month, Belarusian and international NGOs penned an open letter to IGF’s international stakeholders, underscoring how “open and transparent, inclusive, bottom-up, multistakeholder and non-commercial” dialogues that should be a trademark of any IGF initiative are impossible while Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime — famed for its disdain towards civil society — is still standing.

For the last three years, Belarus’ national version of the UN Internet Governance Forum conference has been on hold. Authorities’ focus was, instead, directed towards persecuting and imprisoning former organizers and partners of the forum, rather than finding new platforms for the exchange of ideas. In the aftermath of the notorious 2020 presidential elections — tainted by internet shutdowns and state-sponsored violence — the regime systematically eradicated almost all NGOs in the country and persecuted more than 4,300 people, 1,500 of whom were recognized as political prisoners. 

Lukashenko’s grip over Belarus’ internet tightened into total control, as he intensified his crackdown on dissident voices by blocking dozens of independent media outlets and outlawing more than 1,300 Telegram channels based on trumped up “extremist” or “terrorist” charges. Today, it is impossible to fully comprehend what is safe to say online in Belarus, a nation where even a comment in the form of emoji can land you two-years of limited freedom.

Amidst the Orwellian-style witch hunt targeting human rights defenders, the inadequate representation from the third sector found in the IGF.BY 2023 speakers’ list is entirely unsurprising. In comparison to previous years’ representation, inviting only one NGO working on areas unrelated to digital rights and internet governance must feel like the deepest of insults to all former participants, who are forced to watch this mockery from exile or behind the bars.

This context is why we, as civil society organizations, saw the writing on the wall before the forum began, and were confident that civil society voices wouldn’t be raised during IGF.BY 2023. We knew no meaningful, multistakeholder discussions would take place in Minsk.

Challenge the IGF charade or try to reason with the dictators?

While it is clear that from Belarus to Myanmar, digital dictatorships threaten the progress toward human rights-centered internet governance, civil society should not shut down all discussions about connectivity and access to the internet even in the most restrictive environments. We have a responsibility to people and communities most at-risk. Everyone, everywhere, deserves secure, affordable, and stable access to the open internet.

The very nature of a dictatorship is unpredictable, and any move by civil society that could lead to total internet isolation, paving the way for sovereign internet ideas, is counterproductive and can dramatically impact people’s human rights online. The case of Russia shows that calls for sanctions, mass corporate pullouts, and over-compliance can only further silence civil society and undermine our ability to coordinate resistance. This is why Access Now advocates for certain exceptions or carve-outs to sanctions, aimed at allowing people in non-democratic regimes to retain access to the global internet — one of the few avenues left for freedom of expression and access to accurate information.

Therefore, stakeholders like ICANN and RIPE NCC, listed as IGF.BY 2023 participants, have a responsibility to maintain relations and engage in dialogue with Belarusian authorities. These organizations distribute and maintain internet resources, like IP addresses, and manage the global domain name system (DNS) — the internet’s address book. If all communications are severed with the government, so will the internet connection that NGOs, human rights groups, journalists, and attorneys working on human rights issues inside and outside Belarus rely on. These actors must be able to continue to provide critical information about the current state of affairs and human rights across the region.

That being said, ICANN and RIPE NCC should proceed with caution when participating in IGF.BY and similar events, understanding that their involvement cannot be allowed to legitimize harmful narratives and further limitations of internet freedoms. When joining state-sponsored conversations, we call on international stakeholders to:

  • Hold Belarusian authorities to account for internet shutdowns, including the devastating 2020 disruption, and underline the importance of high-quality, secure, and unrestricted internet access throughout important social events and beyond;
  • Underscore the need for a dynamic multistakeholder approach to IGF.BY and similar events, and outline the incompatibility of IGF principles with the ongoing crackdown on civil society;
  • Hold separate discussions with Belarusian digital rights experts and civil society representatives ahead of IGF.BY, as safe and appropriate, and utilize similar events to better understand the ramifications of Belarusian authorities internet governance approaches; and
  • Reiterate their commitment to keep Belarus connected to the global internet and condemn attempts to exercise pervasive control over the country’s internet traffic and data.

While the absurdity that was the IGF.BY 2023 has now wrapped up, Belarus’ digital future can still be extended and defended, if civil society gets a seat at the table.


Anastasiya Zhyrmont
Anastasiya Zhyrmont spearheads Access Now’s Eastern Europe & Central Asia policy work, building coalitions, influencing key stakeholders, and bringing digital rights issues in restrictive environments into the international spotlight. Anastasiya previously worked as an advocate for the rights of peo...