Digital direct action in Belarus: hacktivists or vigilantes?

Human Constanta
28 October 2022

Cyberspace is a field where human rights can be upheld or violated. While it may be tempting to picture cyber actors wearing either white or black hats, it is increasingly hard to characterize online actions in strictly binary terms. The notions of hacktivism and digital vigilantism – the latter often having a more negative connotation as compared to the former –  pose a challenge in terms of their public perception and legal regulation.

Digital vigilantism is often understood as a set of digital self-justice practices. Such practices can manifest in a variety of forms – such as exposing government officials, suspected of grave human rights violations, by publishing their personal data (doxxing), or hacking into government websites to reveal corrupt schemes to the public. Digital vigilantism can be seen as a digital civil resistance tool and a form of citizen-led justice in autocratic environments, where such “digital direct action” is often claimed to be the last chance to restore justice and expose those responsible for human rights abuses. Whenever used to advance “nobler” democratic goals vigilantism seems hardly different from hacktivism – also a form of direct online action, aimed to restore justice and demand accountability, famously mainstreamed by Anonymous with its most recent digital crusade against Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Such practices may be a double-edged sword, stirring privacy concerns. On the one hand, it helps to balance the power of repressive states, who have a monopoly on much of the countries’ Internet landscape and activists, who get a new effective leverage to advance their goals.

Belarus is one of the countries where de-anonymization (doxxing) was widely used by the activists to exert pressure on the political regime. Since the manifestly fraudulent 2020 presidential elections, peaceful protests that followed, and their violent dispersal, resulting in protestors’ deaths and lengthy prison terms, people started to seek alternative avenues for justice and use digital civic resistance tools to deanonymize, name, and shame those involved in wrongdoings. 

Initiatives like Cyber-Partisans break into government portals and publicize sensitive data, while Telegram channels like one entitled “The Black Book of Belarus” reveal names, contacts, and pictures of law enforcement officers, suspected of committing human rights abuses. Belarusian de-facto government (its legitimacy remains in question following the election fraud) has retaliated against such hacktivists or vigilantes. Under newly amended “anti-extremism” laws “Cyber-Partisans” initiative was recognized as an “extremist” and the administrator of “The Black Book of Belarus” Safia Sapega was sentenced to 6 years in prison, following the infamous Ryanair plane hijacking in Belarus. Additionally, the Belarusian government has done its best to anonymize and protect law enforcement officers involved in state-sponsored violence by allowing them to hide their identities when testifying in political cases (having their faces blurred, voices altered, and allowing them to use pseudonyms).

The newly adopted Declaration for the Future of the Internet states that “access to the open Internet is limited by some authoritarian governments and online platforms and digital tools are increasingly used to repress freedom of expression and deny other human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The repressive digital policies of Belarus, being an aspiring digital dictator, perhaps warrant  and justify direct civil resistance responses, since there are hardly any ways to hold the authorities accountable, the authorities’ being deaf to civil society voices
Against the background of growing digital authoritarianism in Belarus, it is hardly possible to consider digital direct actions reprehensible. However, as valid as the goals of digital resistance are, privacy and surveillance concerns remain relevant, especially as we look into the future hoping to see progress rather than backsliding in the privacy realm. In legal terms, it is crucial to assess every action of activists through the metric of legality, necessity, and proportionally – a key three-part test to assess the lawfulness of actions in question.

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