OONI measurements indicate censorship remains

In its most recent measurement report, the Open Observatory of Network Interference [OONI] concludes that “while social media censorship in Azerbaijan appears to have been lifted, the media censorship remains.” These and other findings are based on the recent measurement report produced in partnership with OONI. 

Here are some highlights.

Blocked websites

The news websites that presented signs of blocking in Azerbaijan (between December 2020 to February 2021) include:

🛑 azerbaycansaati.tv – at the time of blocking azerbaycansaati.tv in 2017, the Government of Azerbaijan claimed “a number of articles published” by the news website “included calls aimed at ‘forcible change of the constitutional order,’ ‘organization of mass riots,’ and other illegal activities.” 

🛑 www.24saat.org – a more detailed report about how 24saat.org was blocked can be found in this report, published by Qurium in 2017. 

🛑 www.abzas.net – DDoS attacks against abzas.net commenced on January 12, 2017, and lasted for eight days. During five full consecutive days, the website remained inaccessible until it was finally migrated to VirtualRoad.org’s secure hosting infrastructure.

🛑 www.azadliq.info – as a hosting provider for azadliq.info Qurium published this report about initial signs of blocking against this online news platform. The website was attacked numerous times according to documentation and forensic reports by Qurium. The technology deployed in these DDoS attacks was Allot and Sandvine DPI gear.

🛑 www.azadliq.org – the news website which represents the Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Europe, was blocked on March 27, 2017. 

🛑 www.gununsesi.org – signs of DPI technology used in blocking gununsesi.org were once again documented by Qurium.

🛑 www.kanal13.tv – was among blocked websites in 2017 while its editor prosecuted [charges were dropped three years later.] 

🛑 www.meydan.tv – was also among the websites that were blocked in 2017 together with azerbaycansaati, azadliq.info and others. 

🛑 www.occrp.org – in response to the leaks about Azerbaijan Laundromat published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Research Project [OCCRP], the government of Azerbaijan suspended access to OCCRP’s website.

There is no official data on the number of blocked websites in Azerbaijan. The Ministry of Communication, High Technologies and Transportation has so far failed to provide accurate lists. This in itself is a violation of Article 13.3.6 of the Law on Information, Informatisation and Access to Information, which requests the Ministry to prepare a list of blocked websites if it has blocked access to a resource and the court upheld this decision.

In July 2018, the Prosecutor General’s Office launched criminal investigations against four news websites: criminal.az, bastainfo.com, topxeber.az and fia.az. The former two were accused of “knowingly spreading false information,” while the latter two were accused of “spreading unfounded, sensational claims in order to confuse the public.” Criminal.az is an independent website, known for its coverage of crime-related news, while bastainfo.com is affiliated with the opposition party Musavat. The latter two are run-of-the-mill online news websites.

In addition to the usual suspects, video streaming service Vimeo appeared to be briefly blocked during the testing coverage:

Circumvention

Several circumvention tool websites appear to have been interfered with in Azerbaijan during the testing period, as illustrated below:

The good news are that access to social media sites and apps was restored during the testing period. The following chart shows that while WhatsApp and Telegram were blocked in November 2020, both apps (along with Facebook Messenger) have been accessible in recent months:

How you can help?

If you are interested in contributing to these tests you are welcome to try the following instructions

free or not free – the battle over internet freedom in Azerbaijan

On January 26, during the appointment of the new head for the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies, Rashad Nabiyev, president Ilham Aliyev in a video conference boasted about free, uncensored internet in Azerbaijan. “Everybody knows, internet in Azerbaijan is free, there is no censorship, no restrictions,” said the President during the video conference. 

But international watchdogs, as well as local activists, beg to disagree. In its most recent ranking of Internet Freedom across the world, Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan as “not free”. Among some of the factors contributing to this ranking are outdated infrastructure, state control over information and communication technology, government manipulation of the online information landscape, presence of blocked websites, jailed critics over their online activism to name a few. Similarly, activists and opposition party representatives say, if President Aliyev’s claims are true, then why do activists are called in for questioning after their critical posts on social media platforms? Or why do opposition activists experience internet disruptions during rallies? 

And this has been the case for over a decade now. Over the years of exercising control over internet freedom in Azerbaijan, the ruling Baku has successfully relied on defensive techniques that require widespread filtering and direct censorship; legal measures techniques that often involve the use of legislation on defamation, and slander to deter users of online platforms from posting critical of the government content; and finally, offensive techniques, such as cyber-attacks against civil society. 

These techniques, defined by Ronald Deibert, is how authoritarian regimes have become savvy at restricting access to their users relying on technology, legal and extralegal techniques, described above. Suffice to say, that these techniques are widely implemented not just in Azerbaijan but other countries where governments exercise full control over the internet domain. Moreover, all of these restrictions have been documented in recent years, concluding a rather stark difference to what President Aliyev claimed on January 26, that Azerbaijan’s internet freedom is far away from being free.

This is also reflected in the work carried out by Azerbaijan Internet Watch. Just within last year alone, Azerbaijan Internet Watch has documented and reported on the score of cases where the evidence suggests to the contrary of what President Ilham Aliyev claimed last month. From discussions on control mechanisms over social media to arrests and intimidation of activists for their online criticisms to internet restrictions and disruptions, and the use of sophisticated surveillance technology to stifle independent voices. That in addition to lack of quality infrastructure and services, is yet to indicate, how does the President come to a conclusion that access to the Internet is free and unrestricted. 

Azerbaijan among top VPN users worldwide according to recent reports

Azerbaijan ranked among the top countries where VPN services were in high demand last year between September and November during the 44-day war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. According to Proprivacy and NordVPN research “global events in 2020 have caused surges in VPN demand, as citizens from Belarus to Hong Kong set out to secure their online privacy and protect themselves from censorship and persecution for their online activities.” Azerbaijan was among the top ten countries where interest in VPN providers spiked in 2020.

Source: https://proprivacy.com/privacy-news/vpn-spikes-2020

“In late September, as the violent clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia continued to escalate over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies of Azerbaijan took action to restrict internet access across the country. Extensive social media restrictions were put in place that took down major communications services, including: Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Zoom, Skype, Messenger,” said the joing report.

In a different report Azerbaijan was once again among the top countries where the biggest increase of VPN usage was recorded. “On September 29, NordVPN saw online privacy tool usage increased by 148 times due to internet access restrictions,” said the report. 

Not surprisingly, NordVPN, a Lithuanian by origin, was among the top targeted providers by pro-government media outlets, which said the service was owned by Armenians and therefore users in Azerbaijan should avoid using this provider.  

Finally, Surfshark, analyzed 185 countries and their social media blocking practices from 2015 to the present day. There Azerbaijan is ranked among the most recent cases of social media blocking [Surfshark too was discredited by Azerbaijan media outlet as being allegedly owned by Armenians, even though the company is registered in BVI. You can check out it’s ranking here.] 

Source: https://surfshark.com/social-media-blocking

On November 10 Azerbaijan and Armenia signed an agreement to end the active phase of fighting. On November 12, the government lifted the blocking and access to all social media platforms.  

For disruptions observed throughout the 44 days read this timeline. For the country ranking in Internet Freedom, you can read the most recent report on Net Freedom by Freedom House here.

Azerbaijan may end up blocking more online content

Four months ago, the Plenum of the Supreme Court in Azerbaijan annulled previous court decisions issued by the Courts of Appeal and Cassation regarding five news websites that were blocked in 2017. On June 5, the Plenum sent the cases back to the Baku Court of Appeal for reconsideration.

The five media platforms include Meydan TV, Azadliq Radio [Azerbaijan Service for Radio Free Europe], Turan TV, Azerbaijansaadi, and Azadliq newspaper [not related to Azadliq Radio]. In March 2017, the Ministry of Communication [which later became the Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies] restricted access to these online resources on the grounds these websites’ content was threatening national security and promoted “violence, hatred, or extremism” and “violated privacy or constituted slander.” The forensics carried out by an independent organization Virtual Road showed evidence of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology used to interfere with access even before there was a court ruling in place. By May 2017, the Ministry had a court ruling to block access. In December 2017, the Court of Appeal in Baku upheld the court ruling from May.

The blocking of these news resources came shortly after the National Parliament of Azerbaijan adopted changes to the law on Information, Informatisation, and access to Information. With the new changes, authorities were allowed to block access to any website on the grounds it contained prohibited information, was posing danger to the state or society, and in the case, the website owner failed to remove content within eight hours of receiving the notification.

In 2017, the Ministry asked for the following in its court appeal:

  1. court order to prevent access to five platforms’ websites;
  2.  block all other resources offering access to the content (this included YouTube, Facebook, and other online resources);

In its decision, the Sabail Court ruled in favor of the first request, leaving the second demand out. The Ministry was satisfied and blocking became effective immediately. 

Three years later, the Ministry of Communication, Transportation, and High Technologies went straight to the Plenum.  According to media law expert Khaled Aghaly, the reason is that the Ministry wants to expand blocking. Considering the experience with the previous court decisions and rulings in Azerbaijan, the chances of the court ruling coming out in favor of the blocked websites are dim. 

Although the Ministry has not explicitly mentioned any of the platforms or names of other resources that have shared content from these blocked news outlets, Aghaly explains that in the new complaint the Ministry claims that the blocked news resources continue to share their content online using other “resources” and that other media platforms also share the content from these blocked platforms. It is possible that the Ministry is looking for ways to not only prevent access to more online news sites but also, access to social media platforms of Azadliq Radio, Meydan TV, and others.

Can individual social media accounts and/or content be blocked? 

Technically it can. There are previous instances where Facebook did limit access to certain content. This was the case in Thailand in 2017 when Thai users of the social media platform no longer had access to a video that showed the country’s king at a mall in Germany, his tattoos exposed and accompanied by one of his mistresses. According to this Vice story, Facebook blocked the video based on Thailand’s government legislation that deems it insulting to the king and in violation of the country’s laws banning criticism of the monarchy. 

Another option to prevent access is on an ISP level. An example would be what happened in Kazakhstan in 2019 when the government there instructed local ISPs to force their users into installing a government-issued certificate on all their devices, and in every browser. With this certificate installed, the government had access to users’ HTTPS traffic that normally would keep it anonymous. In case, users refused to install the certificate, they were blocked from accessing the internet altogether. At the time, the Kazakh Ministry of Digital Development Innovation and Aerospace said the measure was “aimed at enhancing the protection of citizens, government bodies and private companies from hack attacks, internet fraudsters and other  types of cyber threats.”

Similarly, “mobile service providers instructed their customers to install encryption software on mobile phones that would allow security services to intercept data traffic and circumvent email and messaging applications’ encryption.”

It is worth noting that ISPs in Azerbaijan are bound to the government for the main internet backbone provider in Azerbaijan is government-owned Delta Telekom. In addition, the history of collaboration between mobile operators and the Ministry of the Interior is full of examples when private information of customers was handed over and as a result, led to further targeting. 

Impunity for all these user violations is rampant.