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Sunday, May 14, 2017

End of the Internet in Azerbaijan, as we knew it

Internet cafe in Baku ( (Photo: i-m-s.dk)
Back in 2012 when world's Internet community gathered in Azerbaijan for the Internet Governance Forum – IGF, they got an uncanny surprise. Wi-Fi in the expo centre hosting the IGF was not working

Maybe it was a purely technical problem or it could be an unintended result of some financial corruption when money allocated for setting-up Wi-Fi equipment was misappropriated leaving the venue with under-capacity Internet access. Corruption is no stranger to us – entire Ministry of Communication and High Technologies was overhauled in 2015 and several of its high-ranking officials are behind the bars for abuse of official powers and embezzlement of public funds.

However, back in those days the word "technical" was the buzz word in both the Azerbaijani government circles and our Internet community. Our infrastructure was underdeveloped, claimed the government, and that was the only problem in Azerbaijan preventing wider Internet access. We had only technical obstacles, the government assured us, and we were going to overcome them with investments from the windfall of oil money.

Our Internet community, namely its activist section objected that the Internet was only technically free in Azerbaijan, but politically not free. Every Azerbaijani activist had their own swords of Damocles hanging over their heads, I used to say, and no-one knew when they were going to fall. And with all the avenues – TVs, print media, universities and public squares – closed to free speech, this hypothetical island of free speech in Azerbaijan, the Internet, how long would it remain un-submerged?

What made the matter worse was that our even hypothetical Internet freedom was not guaranteed in the law books. Loose provisions of the laws were leading to occasional blocking of websites. Aside from some satirical blogs and Iranian-sponsored religious propaganda websites, even Imgur, an innocent photo-sharing platform fell a victim for a short time.  However, blocking of websites was an exceptional measure back then. Despite being an arbitrary measure, the government was resorting to it only in selected circumstances.

One local Internet activist was telling all the time that the only ground for Internet freedom in Azerbaijan was the presidential promise. "Internet is free and it will always remain free," were saying President Ilham Aliyev. And what if he changed his mind?

This change of mind came somewhere between 2013 and 2015. In May 2013 Azerbaijan criminalised online defamation contrary to all recommendations, its international commitments and even against the National Action Plan for Human Rights which envisaged abolition of criminal defamation at all. Starting from 2013, harsh government persecution ended the vibrant civil society and youth movements in Azerbaijan. Journalists, as well as NGOs and activists dealing with free speech and Internet freedom were the first victims. Many activists fled the country, NGOs were closed or shut down, and dozens of civil society and youth movement leaders were sent into jail. Azerbaijani edition of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and many independent journalists were forced out of country.

Internet became the only tool and space available for those activists who chose to stay. Many activists who established themselves in exile also made the Internet their main resource to broadcast their message into the country. With oil prices plummeting and economic situation getting worse on daily basis, it was evident that the government was no longer inclined to tolerate any dissent whether it was online or offline. The days of the hypothetical free Internet were also numbered. The Republic of Facebook was doomed.

First came the cyber-attacks. Fake accounts and malware targeted dissidents in Azerbaijan, and according to independent researchers, news media websites came under attack from the government infrastructure. Toward the end of 2016, silent attempts were made to restrict access to news websites publishing critical articles about the government. Then in early 2017 the government finally moved into an open battle.

On 15 February 2017, the relevant committee of National Parliament adopted draft legislation on amendments to the Law on Information, Informatisation and Protection of Information. The amendments introduced into the existing law a whole new chapter regulating Internet and empowering the government to block websites. Legal experts considered these changes as introduction of Internet censorship in Azerbaijan while the criteria was vaguely defined and open to abuses.

These new provisions were paving the way to stricter government control over the Internet with the Ministry of Communication monitoring websites, identifying illegal content and taking measures to remove or block that content. Any information "creating threats to the interests of state and society protected by the law" or "creating unavoidable situations that present a real danger to human life and health" would be subjected to a take-down notice. If not removed after eight hours, those websites would be "temporarily" blocked and the issue brought before the court. Subsequently, the court might decide to either uphold the decision of the ministry or overturn it.

These amendments which could be characterised as state censorship were hastily passed through the Parliament and the President signed them into the law in less than a month – on 16 March. The amendments were officially published on 19 March and entered into force. And less than in a week after their official publication, these provisions were already put into use.

On 27 March 2017, opposition-affiliated azadliq.info, azerbaycansaati.tv and kanalturan.tv websites (online resources of Azadlıq newspaper and Azərbaycan saatı satellite TV programme), azadliq.org (Azerbaijani website of RFE/RL), and meydan.tv (a website run by political immigrants in Berlin) were abruptly blocked in Azerbaijan. After a few days, at least two more online resources, abzas.net and kanal13.tv joined the list.

The Ministry of Communication initially rejected any responsibility, but after a few buzz and fuss at home and abroad, it was finally revealed that the former five websites were blocked by the Ministry of Communication acting on the official request from the Prosecutor General.

The case was taken to court and the worst predictions of legal experts proved to be a reality. The new broadly-defined legal provisions were displayed in their full beauty – the websites critical of the government were accused of all sorts of existing vices – calling to violent overthrow of the constitutional order, propaganda of religious radicalism, inciting people to conduct mass suicides, evading taxes and misappropriating funds, as well as working without official accreditation.

The shrine is mine, and I know what miracles it may perform, says an old Azerbaijani proverb. We all know how effective are the Azerbaijani courts in delivering justice. Therefore what the court did was utterly predictable – it ruled to uphold the decision of the ministry.

One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind, famously said Neil Armstrong. What seemed to be one routine ruling for an Azerbaijani rubber-stamp court, was in fact a huge milestone for the Azerbaijani Internet. That one day Azerbaijan may enter the prestigious club of Internet censors – this was not the direction we were heading to. At least, it didn't seem in the horizon. No-one including me could imagine this just a few years ago. And what is next for Azerbaijan? Blocking social networks? Creating its own "halal Internet"? Registering with your ID card to use public Wi-Fi? And heading toward a happy care-free national cyberspace with only cute cats and obligatory portraits of late President Heydar Aliyev?

We have a belief that a catastrophic change happens in a day and violently upends everything around. Roman empire collapsed in 480 AD, German democracy was murdered the day Hitler assumed power, and the World War II started on September the First. But that common misconception of a boiling frog, however misconceived it is, is still what describes our human reality better than history textbooks. The only difference is that the frog eventually jumps out whether you put it directly into the boiling water or you heat the water gradually. But we don't jump out, in most of the cases.

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P.S. An incomplete list of websites blocked in Azerbaijan:

azadliq.org – RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service 
makroblog.az – sister website of RFE/RL Azerbaijani service
azadliq.info – "Azadliq" newspaper (opposition Popular Front Party)
nur-az.com – news & religious website set up by Azerbaijani students in religious seminaries in Qom, Iran
abzas.net –  news website run by opposition Nida movement 
kanal13.tv – independent online TV channel & news website
meydan.tv – website run by emigrants in Berlin