Belarus is famously the only dictatorship in Europe and a country where internet restrictions have long been the norm.
But things have got even worse there as a series of anonymous bomb threats has led to the blocking of the encrypted email service ProtonMail and its sister service, ProtonVPN.
What has happened?
The bomb threats were sent out last Friday and targeted a number of locations in the Belorussian capital city of Minsk. Targets included the airport, train stations, hotels, and a number of company headquarters.
The threats were sent from a ProtonMail email address and as a result, instructions were quickly sent out to ISPs in Belarus to block access to ProtonMail IP Addresses.
Nearly a week later, the ban remains in place and ProtonMail have confirmed that as their IP Addresses are being blocked, Belorussian users of ProtonVPN are also currently unable to connect to the service.
In a statement given to ZDNet, ProtonMail said they had reached out to Belorussian authorities in an attempt to resolve the issue but were yet to receive any response.
A futile move
The fact that the Belorussian regime has blocked access to an encrypted messenger service and a VPN is no great surprise. They have form in this area. But the fact the move has been taken for the reasons it has is frankly bizarre.
ProtonMail is a free webmail service that anyone can sign up for anonymously in just a few minutes. The fact that these bomb threats came from a ProtonMail account does not reflect on the service itself at all.
The person sending the threats could just have easily used a Gmail account or any other free webmail provider. If ProtonMail remains blocked, they might well do so next time. They could also be based outside the country in which case the block would have no effect in any case.
Blocking access to ProtonMail does nothing to stop bomb threats being made against Belorussian targets. It has therefore been suggested in some quarters that the authorities in Belarus are using the incident as an excuse to block access to a service that allows the people of Belarus to send emails that the regime cannot read.
ProtonMail itself has been transparent throughout the entire process. They have been clear in their statements that their terms and conditions prohibit inappropriate use of their service and that if details are provided, the user’s account will be blocked.
The fact that the Belorussian regime has failed to provide this information also raises the prospect that the attack may not even have been a legitimate one but could have been orchestrated by the authorities.
It is not the first time that ProtonMail has been blocked in Belarus. Back in June, the service went down temporarily (in Russian) during a sporting event that was being held in Minsk. Access was restored after a few days but no reason for the block was ever made public.
ProtonMail was also blocked in Russia for a time earlier this year. This block was slightly different as the service remained available but was unable to send or receive emails from Russian domains. The official advice given out by ProtonMail then was to get around the block by using a VPN.
How to access ProtonMail in Belarus
In their statement, ProtonMail has noted the ease with which cyber-criminals would be able to bypass the block and suggested that it was innocent internet users who would be denied access instead.
The truth is that it is not just cyber-criminals who can bypass blocks like this with ease. Anyone can if they use a VPN, as ProtonMail has previously suggested.
ProtonVPN might be out of the equation in Belarus at the moment because of this block, but all other major VPNs will still be accessible.
Users of VPNs such as ExpressVPN and NordVPN will still be able to use ProtonMail inside Belarus. All you need to do is connect to a VPN server located outside Belarus. Almost all VPNs offers servers in a number of neighbouring countries.
ProtonMail is not blocked in these countries so you will have no trouble logging into your account or sending and receiving emails.
The same technique can be used to get around all of the online censorship being implemented by the Belorussian regime. Using a VPN also protects Belorussian internet users from government spies who we already know keep a close watch on what every Belorussian citizen does online.
For existing users of ProtonVPN in Belarus, it seems that the company is focusing on getting the ban lifted rather than creating a workaround at the moment.
If the Belarussian continues to refuse to play ball with this, it is likely that another solution will be made public fairly soon.
But for now, if you need to use a VPN in Belarus, the only real option is to sign up with another provider.