Friday, October 13

When in Vienna speaking about Internet Freedoms in Azerbaijan

I thought, after a very long silence and absence I share with you my talking points from a conference I just attended in Vienna organized by the OSCE Austria Chairmanship, Council of Europe and the Chairmanship of the Czech Republic in the Council of Europe. 

Lights, camera, action minus the action and camera with an exception of live stream camera and few photographers. 

On the panel "Determining the unlawful nature of third-party content – what does it mean in practice?" I tried to bring in the country-specific example since other panelists included a Facebook rep [who was pretty good]; two academics [one of them was the amazing Ben Wagner who was our moderator] and a lawyer. 

Surely Azerbaijan representation to the OSCE did not like that Azerbaijan was as she said "singled out" and requested that delegation is told ahead of time when their country is going to be singled out on a panel. 

She [it is actually pretty cool to see that the rep. of our mission or at least the person who attends most of these OSCE events is a woman, so yay to that, though nay to what she was saying] also responded to a statement made by the EU rep who mentioned Azerbaijan as a country of concern for the EU where internet freedoms are on a sliding scale.

I was also disputed, of course, by two male reps from Azerbaijan [one of whom claimed we were "friends on Twitter" before trashing my intervention in the plenary]. In fact, it was the first time that I was accused of working "in Armenia" and therefore "not in a position to provide an account of what is happening in Azerbaijan". 

Hmm... I have been accused of being Armenian, of working for Armenia, and with Armenia and so on but being told I work from Armenia was pretty new to me. 

I guess, all I can say to that gentleman is that check your facts. Although I am pretty sure he knew perfectly well where I live. Oh well. It is what it is.

So, now that I have shared juicy highlights from our government mouthpiece reps, I can now proceed to share with you some of the juicy highlights from my talk. 

There were a few overarching questions that I tried to address: 

- Are intermediaries in Azerbaijan equipped to balance fundamental human rights, and freedoms and relevant social interests at stake? 

- What does it mean for the separation of powers?

- With such an extensive power over various areas of content regulation, what are the consequences for internet freedom and in the governance of Internet? 

* Azerbaijan is certainly a case where intermediaries are not equipped to balance fundamental rights and freedoms, there is a weak separation of powers and as a result, the consequences for internet freedom have been rather grim. And if we are to look at a rate and scale of rights abuse inside the country, there is clear evidence of the real intentions and something tells me, freedoms online or offline are not in the picture. As a result, just as other forms of freedoms, internet freedom has been on the decline in Azerbaijan. 

* Independence of the intermediaries is jeopardized if we look at the ownership, transparency, and accountability of both the government and the internet intermediaries. 

* The recently renamed and restructured Ministry of communications and high technologies holds significant shares in a handful of leading internet service providers and the government is authorized to instruct companies to cut internet service under very broadly defined circumstances, including war, emergency situations, and national disasters. 

* Wholesale access to international gateways is maintained by companies with close ties to the government. Only two operators in the country, AzerTelecom, and DeltaTelecom, are licensed to connect international IP traffic. DeltaTelecom also owns the internet backbone and is the main distributor of traffic to other ISPs in the country. It's monopoly also extends over data storage where its stores national information resources. 

* The consequences of holding such a monopoly of country’s internet traffic was reflected in November 2015, when the country experienced its first internet blackout, that was caused by the fire at Delta Telecom data center. Another blackout took place in 2016 although not as bad as the previous year. One of the explanations provided for the last year’s blackout was related to internet providers being unable to cover their debt to Delta Telecom. 

What about some basic infrastructure data you might just as well ask? 

Internet penetration in Azerbaijan according to recent ITU report is around 77%. However, the quality and monopolized telecom infrastructure remain the main obstacle for better internet access across the country. 

Mobile internet is doing slightly better [the key here is "slightly"]. While the average costs have dropped for internet service significantly since 2011, there is still income discrepancy when it comes to affordability. A World Bank report in 2015 concluded that the average household in Azerbaijan lower income bracket which makes 40% of the total population income, would need 21% of their monthly disposable income to afford the cheapest mobile broadband package and 28% of the cheapest fixed broadband package. 

Now bear in mind, these calculations were done before the two currency devaluations in Azerbaijan we saw last year. 

There are over 50 ISPs in the country, a little over half of the market (56%) controlled by the three state-owned companies. 

One state provider AzTelekomnet has ownership ties to the Ministry of Communication and High Technologies while one of its shareholders, include Azerfon, which has links to the president’s daughters. 

The country’s leading mobile service has been found to have connections with President Aliyev’s daughters too. 

The problem with the rest of the ISPs is that they are still controlled by the Ministry of Communication and High Technologies. The biggest concern is the authority national security services hold over telecom companies, requiring them to make available their equipment and special facilities. 

Mobile companies are known to surrender the content of users’ phone conversations without a court order. 

In 2014, Citizen Lab reported that Azerbaijan along with 20 other governments was suspected of using RCS (remote control system) spyware sold by the intelligence technology and surveillance company Hacking Team. This spyware allowed anyone with access to active a computer’s webcam, and microphone, and steal videos, documents, contact lists, emails and any other form of documentation on the computers. 

In August of 2015, the ministry of communication said it will require some social media and instant messaging services as a Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, skype, and Viber to obtain a licence in order to operate in Azerbaijan. For now, this has not been done although, discussions are already worrying. this year, one parliament member suggested users of popular social media networks in Azerbaijan register with IDs before posting any comment online to prevent “online harassment”. 

So whats next?

In 2014, UNESCO study on internet intermediaries’ relation to digital rights showed that the levels of transparency of ISPs on matters related to privacy and surveillance are very low. And in countries with questionable ownership, this relation becomes even riskier if not raises questions and alarm. 

In Azerbaijan, we are yet to see full transparency in this regard both from internet intermediaries and government. 

We are also yet to see introduction and adoption of specific regulations to ensure net neutrality. Most importantly, we are yet to see the government take necessary steps to end all forms of impunity for violence against online activists, journalists, and bloggers. 

Instead, what we are seeing is further shrinking space in a monopolized system. 

In March of this year, amendments were introduced to the law on “Information, informatization, and protection of information” (shortly law of information) and on “telecommunication”. Authorities said these were necessary amendments in order to ensure regulation of the internet. One parliament member said, “We are talking about banning the propaganda of violence, religious extremism, incitement to national, religious and racial hatred, the disclosure of state secrets, abuse and slander, breach of privacy and family life”. 

The changes call on the owners of the websites, to immediately remove the illegal content after receiving a warning from a relevant state institution. In case of content is not removed within 8 hours, the website owners can be taken to court. And in case the content is a threat to state and society, the site can be closed without a court order. These amendments were adopted pretty much as soon as they were introduced. 

And already in May we saw blocked access to some of the independent and opposition news platforms as well as opposition online TV channels based on a court order [as I was corrected by the Azerbaijan delegation rep. to the OSCE]. What the official delegate forgot to mention was that their owners were not given any notice. Nor were they provided with any court orders. 

So what does all of this talk mean? Well for once, it means, we should be worried. We should be worried about the extension of Azerbaijani government intervention on the Internet and things it can and willing to do to get in the way of any kind of dissent. 

You see, up until this year [2017], the government refrained from engaging in extensive blocking or filtering of online content, often relying on legal, economic and social pressures to discourage critical media coverage or political activism online and offline. 

In November of last year, we saw how a number of opposition and independent websites (which are currently blocked for access) reported access and loading speed issues. These websites included (website for an opposition newspaper); Voice of America, Meydan TV (Berlin-based dissident media platform); Azadliq Radio (Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Europe) - all of these platforms experienced some form of artificially engineered bandwidth throttling and at least 6 cases of network congestion as well as deep packet inspection mechanisms in all incoming connections into the country. 

Also in November of last year, Azerbaijani parliament adopted two new legislative amendments which increase penalties for online defamation and insult. According to article 148 posting slander or insult on an internet information resource while using fake names, profiles, or accounts are punishable by imprisonment for up to one year. According to article 323 smearing or humiliating honor and dignity of the president in public statements, publicly shown products, or mass media is punishable by up to three years imprisonment or fines as high as 750EUR (1500AZN). 

In 2013, a local court ruled that social media was subject to libel laws as a form of mass media when a former bank employee was sentenced to one year of corrective labor for critiquing his former employer on Facebook. 

Defamation committed online falls under the criminal code, punishable by up to six months in prison. While the prosecutor and the ministry of the interior can initiate an investigation based on content posted on Facebook. 

This year [2017], during the hosting of the Islamic Solidarity Games, users in Azerbaijan reported problems using WhatsApp, Facebook messenger, and Skype. Authorities at first did not respond to reports, however, later explained the measures were taken by them, for the reasons of national security. 

This year we also saw blocking of international websites- since September 2017 access to OCCRP’s website remains blocked. Few words - Azerbaijan Laundromat, slush fund, corruption, bribery - might serve as explainers to reasons why this is happening. 

Recent legislative amendments and continued harassment of netizens offline for their activities online raises the stakes of possible throttling with more online platforms and internet as a whole. Not to forget that these legal changes come atop of reports of arrested, imprisoned and persecuted journalists and bloggers in Azerbaijan. 

In February of this year, a court in Baku sentenced blogger Mehman Huseynov on defamation charges making him first citizen journalist to be prosecuted openly for defamation. 

In a country where freedoms and all forms of dissent (online and offline) are heavily cracked down and punishable by bogus charges, hefty fines, and long jail times, it is difficult to talk about any kind of independence let alone independence of internet intermediaries.

Thank you*

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