Belarus internet ban targets foreign websites

A new internet ban in the former Soviet country Belarus will make the usage or browsing of many foreign websites illegal and punishable by a fine of up to $125. The Library of Congress reports that all Belarusian companies and entrepreneurs will be required to use only locally-hosted websites for conducting business, sales, or exchanging emails. Additionally, e-commerce websites without a local presence will be banned from providing goods or services to anyone in Belarus, meaning that websites like Amazon will not be allowed to sell to Belarusians. Internet cafe owners are required to report any illegal browsing to the authorities for prosecution. Additionally, websites deemed “extremist” or “pornographic” will be banned, bringing to mind a scene from the TV series Scrubs when Dr. Cox says “I’m fairly sure if they took porn off the Internet, there’d only be one website left, and it’d be called ‘Bring Back the Porn’.”

What’s unclear about the law is how it would apply to non-commerce sites like blogs or news sites, or any other website without the .by extension. How about travel booking engines or content for citizens to travel abroad? It’s also unclear how it would affect non-Belarusians doing business in the country, such as Gadling’s blogger Alex Robertson Textor, who recently reported from Minsk. Will this very website become illegal to read in Belarus? We hope not, for any Belarusian readers, and for the sake of internet freedom for all.

Photo courtesy Flickr user decafeined from a protest earlier this year in Istanbul against pending internet censorship in Turkey.

Nine-day, 62-mile traffic jam in China

Before you start the commute home for the day, consider how bad the traffic could be. Sure, you could get stuck behind a bus or on the train for an hour or so, but how about 9 DAYS?! Thousands of motorists have been stranded on the Beijing-Tibet expressway since August 13th as a road work project has stopped up an already-busy road, and they could be stuck for another few weeks until the project concludes. Heavy traffic is nothing new to the highway, as thousands of trucks pass through daily on one of the few routes into the capital, carrying cargo throughout the country.

Some enterprising (and price-gouging) locals have set up shop along the highway, selling food and drinks at steep prices, though police are patrolling the area around the clock and will remain until the congestion is alleviated. Bored drivers have suggested that “concerts should be held at each congested area every weekend, to alleviate drivers’ homesickness” and why stop there? How about a pop-up hotel or a food truck (though a food bicycle might be better to cut through the stalled vehicles) to ameliorate tension and hunger? There won’t be any traffic tweet-ups, as the government has blocked Twitter along with a number of other websites.

How would you pass the time in the world’s worst traffic jam?

[Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons]

Attend Milwaukee’s Summerfest in honor of George Carlin

George Carlin, the guy who created quite the stir in the 1970s with his comedy routine, “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television,” just died yesterday.

When I went looking for a travel related element to add to this piece of news, I came upon this tidbit. Carlin was arrested for performing this very routine in 1972 at the Milwaukee Summerfest . As it so happens, the Milwaukee Summerfest starts this Thursday, June 26 and ends on July 6. That’s some festival.

The festival is touted as being the world’s largest music event. After browsing the line-up, I can see why. It is impressive. Stevie Wonder, The Love Monkeys, LeAnn Rimes, Rush, Fantasia, and Tim McGraw are just a few of the performers. Isn’t that a mix of styles?

This festival also has many, many activities that are family-oriented. The family-oriented quality is partly what got George in trouble.

The day admission fee is doable. Adults are $8 weekdays and $15 weekends, for example. You can buy and print tickets and a parking pass for no extra fee online. It’s one way to beat the crowds.

Here’s an article about what happened in 1972 at the festival and the impressions that Carlin gave later about the event. And here’s a quote of his that has to do with travel–kind of.

“Some national parks have long waiting lists for camping reservations. When you have to wait a year to sleep next to a tree, something is wrong.”

Here’s a link to other Carlin quotes and a link to his Web site, also quirky and funny.

Infiltrating North Korea Part 19: A Final Word

Infiltrating North Korea is a 19-part series exploring the world’s most reclusive nation and its bizarre, anachronistic way of life. To start reading at the beginning of the series, be sure to click here.

Although it was a short trip of only five days, my time in North Korea proved to be one of the most fascinating journeys I’ve ever taken.

This brief glimpse into the world’s most reclusive nation was a rare opportunity to go back in time and witness what the Soviet Union was like fifty years ago. Everything I’ve ever read about the former USSR was alive and well in the streets of Pyongyang; red banners hanging everywhere, blanket censorship, ubiquitous propaganda, very few automobiles, fantastic and accessible cultural arts, barely any crime, and a tightly controlled populace afraid to even fold a newspaper with an image of Kim Il Sung on the front for fear of doing something sacrilegious to the Great Leader’s image.

The North Koreans, however, have taken this concept of totalitarianism even further than the Soviets ever did. The Korean cult of personality, for example, requires that people not only wear a pin of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il on their lapel every day, but also that they bow to any statue of the leaders they come across–and there are a lot of statues in North Korea. Not even Stalin nor Lenin were worshipped to such a degree.The North Koreans are also more paranoid about tourists than their Soviet predecessors; we weren’t allowed to speak to anyone during our time in North Korea, we were routinely prohibited from taking photographs, and we couldn’t wander about on our own. We saw only what the government wanted us to see and spoke only to those thoroughly vetted and officially approved to deal with tourists.

Knowing that my journey to North Korea was carefully regulated to reveal only the positive sides of this “socialist paradise” was extraordinarily frustrating. History is full of naïve international observers who were similarly distracted by smoke and mirror tactics, and then reported back to the civilized world about the excellent conditions they witnessed at various prisons, camps, and hellholes.

Totalitarian governments are very effective with their Potemkin villages and deceitful webs and I wanted to make sure I did not fall victim as well. I therefore read everything I could get my hands on before visiting the country. If you plan on going yourself, I highly recommend that you do the same, otherwise you will be won over by singing children, clean streets, well dressed citizens, and a fanatical devotion to socialism.

In fact, I will go so far as to say that it’s criminal to visit North Korea without educating yourself first. Mandatory reading starts with The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan–the son of a privileged Pyongyang family who spent ten years of his life, starting at the age of nine, in a North Korean labor camp. Chol-Hwan is coincidently my age and it was therefore particularly poignant knowing that at the same time I was going to high school homecoming dances and football games in the 1980s, Chol-Hwan was being beaten, brainwashed, and forced to cut trees and dig holes in freezing temperatures without adequate clothing. And, he ate rats to survive.

This certainly raises a moral conundrum; should tourists pay exorbitant prices to visit this totalitarian nation knowing that their hard currency helps support the regime?

I scoffed at this originally because my experience in traveling has taught me that human interaction with supposed “enemies” is the very best diplomacy in the world. In addition, bringing an outside perspective to an imprisoned people can also be extraordinarily powerful. The whole reason East Germany was the first communist country to fall was because they had more access to the outside world than any other communist country–they saw what life was like on the other side of the Wall and they rebelled.

The problem with North Korea, however, is that the people remain isolated even in the presence of foreigners. We were never given a chance to speak or interact with a single person. My initial belief that I could make some type of impact, perhaps by simply giving a child a candy bar, turned out to be an absurd impossibility.

And, as a result, my presence did nothing more than slightly boost the government coffers and help Kim Jong Il purchase more of his beloved premium cognac while the rest of the country starves.

And so, I leave it up to you to decide on whether such a trip is appropriate or not (and if you’d like contact information for my travel agent, please email me). Despite my frustrations, however, I feel fortunate that I was able to go and I can only hope that my injection of hard currency into the Kim Jong Il regime has been negated by this fair and balanced account of my time spent in the Hermit Kingdom.

Yesterday: A Tale of Two Cities

Infiltrating North Korea Part 11: North Korean Style Advertising

Billboards are a ubiquitous presence in most any major city. Depending on local ordnances, they may fill the entire side of a building, dominate cityscapes, or simply appear on the roadside in a variety of shapes and sizes.

The city of Pyongyang is no exception. The only difference is that there is only one product being advertised here: communism.

Propaganda is the evil step cousin of advertising and the North Koreans embrace it as eagerly as an account executive on Madison Avenue pitching for the Coca Cola business.

Although there’s certainly nowhere quite like Times Square in Pyongyang, there is hardly a spot in the capital where one is not exposed to a billboard or mural extolling the virtues of communism, North Korea, or either one of the Kims.

And just in case someone is blind, a fleet of propaganda vans with speakers mounted atop drive around the city pumping out the latest rhetoric.
Naturally, the state controls the mass media as well, jamming incoming foreign transmissions and making it technically impossible to tune into any other broadcast except for the official state one. This, in part, is controlled by producing radios with only a single FM button and absolutely no dial! I had one of these North Korean specialties in my hotel room and sat staring at it for the longest time; it was simply impossible to change the station and it left me feeling completely powerless.
In addition, there is no such thing as the internet in North Korea or cell phones. Anyone entering the country had to leave their cell phones with customs officials who kept them locked up and inaccessible for the entirety of our stay. And I certainly didn’t get a copy of USA Today under my hotel room door.

Surprisingly, being cut off from the outside world was actually somewhat enjoyable for the five days I spent in North Korea. I quite liked the freedom of not being tied to my cell phone and email and relished in the ignorant bliss of not being exposed to troubling international news. This isolationist cocoon where the state controls everything you hear and see, however, would not have been fun for too long. Living an entire life under such conditions would be hell.

There was one brief glimmer of hope, however. One day when driving around the outskirts of Pyongyang we passed a billboard doing what billboards do throughout the rest of the world: selling a product. Someone has managed to erect North Korea’s first (and only?) billboard, and as you can see, it’s advertising brand new automobiles.

And that, folks, is the slippery slope of capitalism.

Yesterday: The Followers of Kim
Tomorrow: A North Korean History Lesson about the U.S.S. Pueblo