country-wide internet disruptions reported in Azerbaijan [updated]

18:45

[UPDATE] On November 12, access to the Internet was finally restored across the country in Azerbaijan. This was shared in an announcement shared by the Ministry of Communication, Transportation and High Technologies on November 11. In a statement, the Ministry said:

The temporary restriction on Internet access imposed in our country in order to prevent large-scale provocations and cyber incidents committed by the Republic of Armenia will be lifted on November 12, 2020, with the exception of the territories liberated from occupation and former frontier zones.

The Ministry expresses gratitude to millions of Azerbaijani Internet users for their understanding in connection with the restriction on Internet access over the past period.

It should be noted that the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies imposed restrictions on the provision of Internet in the country on September 27, 2020.

As of November 7, access to the Internet remained limited with users of state operators Baktelecom and Aztelekom remaining largely disconnected or with slower than usual internet speed. The rest of the providers worked in a limited capacity while access to social media platforms remained blocked. 

October 20, State Security Service encouraged Azerbaijani citizens to refrain from using VPN providers when trying to access social media platforms that have been inaccessible as a result of the restrictions imposed by the government. It warned that some of the VPN providers such as SkyVPN is not trusted and can steal persona information. To its credit, the SSS is correct about the poor quality of this specific VPN service.

October 13, on the 16th day of escalated tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Internet access remains throttled in Azerbaijan. The Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies claims throttling is in line with government orders given the active state of military operations. But not to everyone. Independent media and journalists complain they have had issues posting news since the start of the recent conflict on September 27 on their websites and social media accounts. In addition to slowing down the Internet, on October 8, a story reported by Bloomberg identified the use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology in Azerbaijan to effectively block access to many of the social media platforms in the country as well. However, this is not the case for government news outlets and government institutions. The latter’s access to uninterrupted and undisrupted Internet highlights the inequality of access to information both by those who produce independent news as well as the audience of these platforms. Experts say that blocking specific content may align with the existing legal framework, however, throttling access to the Internet altogether is a violation of user rights.

October 1, Government in Azerbaijan continues to pose limitations to Internet access as tensions continue on the front line. Joining them are internet providers and telecom companies. According to Azerbaijan Press Agency (APA), Azerfon mobile company (with alleged ties to the ruling family) told its users, that its website and the mobile application won’t be accessible for users, using VPN. At the time of writing this update, the website was inaccessible from abroad, without a VPN.  

September 30, according to the most recent reports Internet access remains throttled in Azerbaijan. Users report: 

  • Bakinternet (ISP)- not working
  • Access to social media platforms not possible without a VPN;
  • Whatsapp app and its web extension are not working (without a VPN); 
  • WiFi connections are down for some; 
  • Internet speed is slow; 
  • Gmail is accessible without a VPN; 
  • Some banks [ex. Rabitabank] has informed its customers their mobile app won’t be accessible if users have VPN active; 
  • Bakcell [mobile operator] and Kapitalbank mobile apps are not accessible when VPN is used;

 

On its website, Bakinternet (an ISP for Bak Telecom) shared a similar statement seen earlier on the website of the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies: “In order to prevent provocations from Armenia, access to the Internet has been limited.” 

Translation: 

Employees are asked to delete VPN apps at the workplaces;
They are told using VPN is dangerous;
AzerTac (state news agency) published articles and aired TV shows discussing the dangers of VPN;

According to the VPN service Surfshark website, the sale of VPN in Azerbaijan witnessed a sharp increase as the country moved to block social media platforms starting September 27. “An increased number of Azerbaijanis are turning to Surfshark VPN, leading to an ongoing spike in sales. As a VPN service, Surfshark allows users to overcome government blockades. It doesn’t matter if the new restrictions are imposed via a relatively simple DNS-level block or a sophisticated deep packet inspection, a VPN can open access to blocked media.” 


September 29, as clashes on the front line continued on the third day, Internet access in Azerbaijan remained spotty. Users continued reporting difficulties accessing social media platforms. Access to government websites remained spotty. The Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies did not share any further updates on how much longer the situation will last. 


September 28, according to the most recent reports from Azerbaijan, users continued to face difficulties accessing social media platforms unless using VPN services. 

Government websites that were mostly inaccessible yesterday were restored.

The Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies (MCHT) has not made any further statements about the duration of currently imposed throttling. 

Instead, MCHT did issue a warning to users of VPN services in the country with the caveat they were unsafe, collecting private user information, and also capable of infecting devices with malware. The Ministry failed to mention the amount of surveillance technology used by other government institutions against citizens in Azerbaijan. 

***

Based on OONI Measurement results it was possible to confirm that the following applications were blocked in Azerbaijan:

According to measurements, the Facebook messenger app was reachable

Similarly, according to measurements access to the Telegram app was available on some networks. 


As tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated on the front line on September 27, Internet users in Azerbaijan began reporting issues accessing the Internet, social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and others), and communication apps (WhatsApp, Telegram).

Translation: Looks like they are only limiting access to social media platforms. There are no problems when accessing the Internet [sites]. It is possible to access other websites. 

Issues accessing the internet began already a day before.

Azərbaycandakı internet istifadəçiləri ölkədəki internetin surətindən şikayət edirlər. Bir çoxu xeyli yavaşladığını, foto və videoların açılmadığını deyirlər. Sizdə vəziyyət necədir?

Posted by Hebib Müntezir on Saturday, September 26, 2020

Translation: In Azerbaijan, internet users are complaining about internet speed. Many are saying its slowed down, having difficulties loading videos and images. What is the situation on your end?

Throughout the day, users continued reporting issues with access, speed and lack of information on how much longer the limits on access will continue.

At around 10 AM local time, the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies issued a statement in which it claimed the Ministry was behind internet disruptions.

Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies Screenshot

At some point, all websites with gov.az extension were down.

All .gov.az also websites are down including https://t.co/DbfCTYL84y and https://t.co/WJUKYKdrQR https://t.co/N20cYTu7c4

— Cavid ⛧ (@cavidaga) September 27, 2020

According to a global #KeepItOn campaign, “Public safety, national security, or stopping fake news are commonly used to justify shutdowns.” Looking at data collected as a result of the campaign there is a significant annual growth in the number of shutdowns reported across the world. Last year alone, 1706 days of internet access were disrupted by 213 internet shutdowns across 33 countries according to #KeepItOn campaign. 

Internet disruptions of various forms and scale in Azerbaijan are not new. Since April, a leader of an opposition party has had his internet cut off. Sometimes they are reportedly caused as a result of technical incidents. In other cases, access to internet is intentionally slowed down especially around political events. 

While some users online commented on internet disruptions as necessary measure to prevent spread of unconfirmed information, others argued the decision to simply throttle the connection was an easy solution especially when there is no way, the authorities can control social media platforms. 

Azerbaijan Internet Watch continues to monitor developments on the ground.

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