Shutdowns in Belarus: Austrian telco must denounce actions and commit to accountability

UPDATE: November 4, 2020 —  Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition are calling for further transparency and public disclosure from A1 Belarus to support civil society’s fight against internet shutdowns, and to help hold authorities accountable for their actions. 

The company, a subsidiary of A1 Telekom Austria Group, implicated in Belarus’ internet shutdowns in August and September 2020, said via an open letter, “As A1 Telekom Austria Group we are deeply concerned by the recently reported and ongoing use of partial and complete internet shutdowns, as well as targeted content blocking by the Government of Belarus in the aftermath of the 2020 Belarusian presidential elections.” Nikolay Bredelev, Corporate Communications Head at A1 Belarus, explained the company’s strong commitment to transparency, while at the same time highlighting the fact they do not disclose information on shutdown orders.

“A1 Telekom’s commitment to its users must be as strong as its commitment to legal compliance,” said Isedua Oribhabor, Policy Analyst at Access Now. “The Belarusian government has failed to respect the rights of its citizens, and a company like A1 Telekom can help push back against government abuse by being as transparent as possible with its users and with civil society about how it fights internet shutdowns.”

“While we recognise the complexity of telecommunications operations in Belarus, A1 Telekom still needs to assess the role it played in the internet shutdowns, and the inevitable implications the shutdowns had on the 2020 elections,” said Felicia Anthonio, Campaigner and #KeepItOn Lead at Access Now. “We would like to see a commitment from the company to resist shutdown orders in the future — a first step towards reparations for a nation who was cut off from the world when democracy was in turmoil.”

The letter also referenced A1 Belarus’ reliance on state-owned, monopolized internet services, and the need to comply with local legal and regulatory requirements, claiming that noncompliance may have resulted in government-implemented larger scale internet shutdowns.


October 1, 2020  Austrian-owned A1 Telekom Austria Group must acknowledge its role in election-related internet shutdowns in Belarus, maintain free and open internet, and resist and denounce future orders by the Alyaksandr Lukashenka government to interfere with internet access. Via an open letter, 23 members of the #KeepItOn coalition — including Access Now and Austrian-based — are calling on A1 Telekom Austria Group to publicly outline how and why they implemented internet shutdowns and throttling in August and September 2020, report on their impacts, and challenge their legality in courts.

“It’s not a person, but a machine that generates an internet shutdown. A government may issue an order to disconnect its people from the world, but each cog must obey to make it reality,” said Felicia Anthonio, Campaigner and #KeepItOn Lead at Access Now. “Lukashenka hit the kill switch, A1 and its subsidiaries complied, and we saw a nation plunged into darkness. Telecommunication companies must be held responsible and accountable for their roles in internet shutdowns, and commit to a transparent and a human rights-centric future.”

Beginning before the election, but peaking on August 9, polling day — after the announcement of Lukashenka’s “victory” — targeted internet shutdowns denied Belarusian people of their rights to freedom of expression and of assembly, and access to information at the height of a nation’s democratic process. A1 Telekom Austria Group’s actions aided efforts by state actors to cover up egregious rights violations, such as excessive use of force by Belarusian law enforcement against protesters, and the use of arbitrary arrest and detentions targeting journalists, activists and protesters.

The petitioners have called upon the leadership of A1 Telekom Austria Group to consider the following recommendations in order to push back against internet shutdowns, and to ensure their commitment in upholding digital rights in Belarus:

  • Publicly denounce internet shutdowns and disruptions, and highlight their devastating impact;
  • Preserve evidence and reveal any demands from the Belarusian government to disrupt internet access, and pressure to conceal those demands;
  • Publicly disclose details such as when internet services were disrupted, their status throughout the shutdown, and when they came back online;
  • Contest  the legality of internet shutdown orders in court; and 
  • Consult civil society and rally peer companies to jointly push back against government censorship demands, issue regular transparency reports, and deter future shutdown orders.

A1 Telekom Austria Group is the parent company of A1 Belarus — the telco implicated in shutting down the internet — and is partially-owned by an Austrian government investment fund.

Read the open letter.