Who regulates content online in Azerbaijan? Legal analysis

In this new legal analysis, we specifically look into content regulation on the internet carried out by the Prosecutor’s office and how the measures in place, silence free speech often relying on the use of a restrictive law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information.

As the use of the Internet grew in Azerbaijan, so did the measures adopted by the government to regulate the internet space, through legal changes that would tighten existing regulations. As such the ranking of Azerbaijan in Freedom House Freedom on the Net report as “not free” is indicative of the deteriorating internet freedom in several directions, including control of the ICT market, infrastructural challenges, restrictive legal measures, accounts of harassment of citizens for online criticism, and more. Numerous evidence-based reports point out the extent of coordinated, and deliberate efforts deployed by the government in Azerbaijan to restrict free speech on the users of social networks, journalists, and media at large in recent years.  

Currently, two laws regulate what constitutes prohibited information on the internet and the liability for violating these requirements. These are the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information, which defines the requirements and responsibilities for individuals; and the Law on Media, which defines the (almost) similar and additional requirements and responsibilities for journalists and media.

In addition, the presidential decree dated February 22, 2022, instructed the Ministry of Justice to prepare and submit a draft law on measures for violating information and media legislation on the internet to the government within a month. The law is yet to be adopted and concerns over its text and procedural implementation give ground to worry for a new restrictive law to be adopted not to mention its implications to further stifle free speech online.

Until then, an uptick in recent months, of cases in which social media users have faced punitive measures for their online activism indicates that the Prosecutor General Office has taken on a temporary role of taking measures against activists, journalists and media within the scope of laws on information and media. As such we decided to dedicate our next legal analysis report to the practices and activities of the general prosecutor’s office within the framework of national and international legislation. 

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In Azerbaijan, the Code of Administrative Offences and the Criminal Code regulate the legal sanctions against violations of the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information. However, as noted above, an uptick in administrative penalties and warnings issued to media, journalists, and social network users in recent months shows that the main government institution carrying out monitoring, and handing out penalties and warnings has been the Prosecutor General’s Office.

This frequent and at times, aggressive interference by the prosecutor’s office, which normally is in charge of investigating criminal cases and is the prosecuting authority, itself raises a number of concerns with regard to freedom of expression and the media.

The prosecutor’s office argues that the official warnings issued by the institution are a precautionary measure for violating existing. It is worth noting, that laws here are also broadly defined. Local human rights lawyers and experts, suspect, that the prosecutor’s office relies on existing bills on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information as well as the Media, however, it could also refer to additional articles of the Criminal Code. Therefore, the legality of these acts is questionable.

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Recent amendments to the Information Law

On  December 27, 2021, the Azerbaijani parliament (Milli Məclis) adopted new amendments to the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan On Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information (30-VIQD).

One of the amendments includes expanding the measures against the prohibited content*

*Neither the previous nor the iterated version of the law clearly defines what is prohibited content leaving extensive room for the relevant state actors to decide, and based on these overt decisions,  restrict freedom of expression online.  

Previously, the owner of the internet information resource and domain name, and the hosting provider were responsible for removing (deleting) the information (specific content such as articles) from the information resource (website). The iteration obligates the owner, and the hosting provider, to block access to that content (article) on its website (Article 13-2.4, and 13-2.5).

As the law on information determines a list of grounds that define which content is prohibited, it also sets obligations for domain and information resource owners and host providers to remove or block the content upon receiving the warning from the executive authorities. In cases when content removal or blocking is not implemented, relevant executive authority applies to the court. As such, it is the judicial powers making a final judgment on the (il)legality of reported content rather than the executive power. This also means that the warnings issued by the executive authorities to the information resource and domain owners and host providers must not introduce liability. Because, when a court draws its final decision, it applies the principle of proportionality ensuring that different interests are balanced against each other.

Prohibited content as defined in the Law on Information (Article 13.2) and the Law on Media (Article 14). 

Law on Media: 

14.1.1. open calls must not be made for a forcible change of the constitutional order of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the disintegration of its territorial integrity, forcible seizure or retention of power, mass riots;

14.1.2. there must be no disrespect for the state symbols of the Republic of Azerbaijan;

14.1.3. norms of the state language must be observed;

14.1.4. discrimination on grounds of race, religion, origin, gender, ethnicity, and other discrimination must not be promoted, and also no open calls must be made for inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred;

14.1.5. terrorism, religious extremism, violence, and cruelty must not be propagated, and also, information aimed at financing terrorism, organizing or conducting training for terrorist purposes must not be disseminated, and open calls for terrorism must not be made;

14.1.6. words and expressions, gestures with immoral lexical (swearing) content must not be used;

14.1.7. the humiliation of honor and dignity, tarnishing of business reputation is not allowed;

14.1.8. secret information about a person’s family and private life must not be disseminated;

14.1.9. there must be no libel, insults, or hate speech;

14.1.10. actions that are contrary to the protection of health and the environment must not be propagated;

14.1.11. facts and developments must be commented on impartially and objectively, one-sidedness is not allowed;

14.1.12. parapsychology (psychics, mediums, etc.), superstition, or other kinds of fanaticism must not be propagated;

14.1.13. pornographic materials must not be published (broadcast);

14.1.14. information about a person being guilty must not be published (broadcast) without a valid court decision;

14.1.15. the requirements provided for in the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan “On protection of children from harmful information” must be complied with;

14.1.16. other information provided in Article 13-2.3 of the Law of the Republic of Azerbaijan “On information, informatization, and protection of information” must not be broadcast.

Law on information, informatization, and protection of information:

*false information threatening to harm human life and health, causing significant property damage, mass violation of public safety, disruption of life support facilities, financial, transport, communications, industrial, energy, and social infrastructure facilities, or leading to other socially dangerous consequences.

  • propaganda and financing of terrorism, as well as methods and means of terrorism, information about training for the purpose of terrorism, as well as open calls for terrorism;
  • information on the propaganda of violence and religious extremism, open calls directed to the evocation of national, racial, or religious enmity, violent change of the constitutional order, territorial disintegration, violent seizure or maintenance of power, and organization of mass riots;
  • state secrets;
  • instructions or methods for producing firearms, their component parts, ammunition, and explosive substances;
  • information on preparation and usage of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances, and their precursors, about locations of their unlawful acquisition, as well as information on the location of and methods of cultivation of plants containing narcotic substances;
  • pornography, including information related to child pornography;
  • information on the organization of and incitement to gambling and other unlawful betting games;
  • information disseminated with the purpose to promote suicide as a method of solving problems justifies suicide, provides the basis for or incites suicide, describes the methods of committing suicide, and organizes the commission of suicide by several individuals or organized groups;
  • defamatory and insulting information, as well as information breaching the inviolability of private life;
  • information breaching intellectual property rights;
  • other information prohibited by the laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

The legal framework of the power of the prosecutor’s office to issue the official warnings  

According to Article 133 of the Constitution, the Prosecutor’s Office of Azerbaijan (hereinafter – the “Prosecutor’s Office”) shall exercise control over the execution and application of laws, institute criminal cases, and conduct investigations. According to Article 2 of the Law About the Prosecutor’s Office, the Prosecutor’s Office of Azerbaijan is a single centralized body that, is logged in judicial authority.

According to Article 21 of the Law About the Prosecutor’s Office, issuing an official warning is one of the prosecutor’s mandates vested in its powers in the manner and within the framework established by law About the Prosecutor’s Office. Article 22 of the Law identifies under which circumstances, the prosecutor or his deputy shall issue an official warning to the citizen or official.

Because these warnings, as procedural acts, are not established in the administrative code of offenses or in the criminal procedural codes of the Azerbaijan Republic, they serve as a deterrent for individuals from certain actions, such as stopping, not repeating, or not taking any other action in the future.

Powers of the Prosecutor’s Office in the cases of administrative offenses

Article 54 of the Code of Administrative Offenses determines the scope of the prosecutor’s supervision power in the cases of administrative offenses. Within its power, the prosecutor shall take timely measures to eliminate the violation of the law during the proceedings on administrative offenses and exercise the prosecutor’s control over the application and implementation of the Constitution and laws of Azerbaijan.

The first sentence of Article 54.2 of the Code outlines a list of administrative offenses where the prosecutor’s office is empowered to initiate the administrative offense cases. The second sentence of the same Article also gives unlimited power to the Prosecutor’s office to initiate administrative offense cases for any other cases envisaged in the Code of Administrative Penalties.

Once the decision to initiate proceedings on administrative offenses is made, the Prosecutor’s Office then shall send the case to a judge or an authorized body for judiciary proceedings on the merits of the case. Overall, the scope of the prosecutor’s supervision concerning administrative offenses includes the right of the prosecutor to decide on the initiation of proceedings on administrative offenses, to participate in consideration of cases on administrative offenses, to give an opinion or petition on issues arising during the proceedings, to protest against a decision or to rule on an administrative offense.

Thus, the prosecutor’s office has the authority to take measures of responsibility and deterrence against the dissemination of prohibited information on the Internet under the existing legislation on administrative offenses and the law of the prosecutor’s office.

Prosecutor General’s Office warnings to journalists and social media users – comments on recent cases

Detecting dissemination of prohibited information on the Internet and taking non-criminal measures against it is carried out (in the order of checking the information on the violation of the law) by the department for Non-Criminal Prosecution of the Prosecutor General’s Office of Azerbaijan.

In recent months, there have been numerous reports in the media about some social media users, journalists, and news websites receiving warnings or handing administrative offenses in case materials, submitted to the courts by the Prosecutor General’s Office.

Example 1:

On April 1, 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office warned two online media platforms for spreading inaccurate information. According to the Press Service of the Prosecutor General’s Office, “gazet.az” and “manset.az” published inaccurate information on March 31, 2022, about an incident in which as a result of collapsed school building some 20 people died, and many more were injured in Nakhchivan, thus violating the requirements of the Laws of the Republic of Azerbaijan “On Information, Informatization and Protection of Information”, as well as “On Media”.

But neither of the laws prohibit the spread of inaccurate information, nor do these laws define what inaccurate information is. The vagueness of the terminology however does allow the law enforcement authority to define any kind of views, and comments as “inaccurate information” and take punitive or deterrent legal action against them.

Example 2:

According to the press service of the Prosecutor General’s Office dated January 24, 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Republic of Azerbaijan continued to take preventive measures against the placement of prohibited information by law on the Internet, for the purpose of ensuring information security.

The press service then referred to five social media users who received warnings and one person who was detained on the grounds of putting pressure on democratic institutions, disrupting the activities of government agencies, making calls that would result in the governance decline in the country, as well as posting insulting or defamatory information on Facebook thus violating Article 13-2.3.9 of the law on the information.

However, Article 13-2.3.9 of the Law on Information, Informatization, and Protection of Information cited by the Prosecutor General’s Office only prohibits the dissemination of “information that is insulting or slander, as well as infringing on the privacy of private life.” The law does not prohibit the information that could be characterized as putting “pressure on democratic institutions”, “disrupting government agencies”, or “calling to reduce the level of governance in the country” on the list of prohibited information.

Example 3:

On December 21, 2021, Prosecutor’s office issued a warning to the principal of a high school, who was interviewed about the suicides among students. The Prosecutor’s office said the information shared by the school principal qualified as prohibited content, and thus was unacceptable to spread.

The Prosecutor General’s Office did not reveal further details about the case and specifically what parts of the principal’s interview violated the rules about the information on suicide. Article 13-2.3.8 of the Law on Information only prohibits the information that “promotes suicide as a method of solving problems, justifies or incites suicide, explains the methods of committing suicide or information to organize the suicide of several people in a group.”

Example 4:

On December 28, 2021, Prosecutor’s office issued a warning to 5 social media users for violating Article 13-2 of the Information law by spreading the information without citing certain facts and sharing biased information aimed to stir sensation in the society. The prosecutor’s office further urged social media users and journalists “to refrain from disclosing inaccurate and distorted information,” warning “that the most serious measures would continue against the spread of biased and misleading information in society.”

Similar, non-criminal legal action (i.e., warning) by the Prosecutor’s Office was made on November 21, 2021, against some media and social network users. The Prosecutor General’s Office initiated a violation of an administrative offense under Article 388-1.1.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses and sent the case to the relevant court for consideration. In addition, three other people were warned by the prosecutor. The Prosecutor General’s Office further urged more serious measures in accordance with the relevant legislation, including criminal liability against media and social network users who disseminate false and inaccurate information in order to create artificial agitation.

However, Article 13-2 of the information law does not prohibit information of a “sensational” nature or for not basing information “on concrete facts” or sharing “various biased information.”

Legal commentary on warning acts issued by the Prosecutor General’s Office

As noted above, although formal warnings are defined as a type of prosecutorial act, they do not explicitly determine the concrete legal consequences for the persons receiving these warnings. As such, it is possible to determine from existing cases that these warnings issued by the prosecutor’s office are announced after alleged perpetrators are called in for questioning.

It is also possible to determine that inviting the alleged perpetrator to the prosecutor’s office is done for the purpose of signing the warning act, as a way to consent and/or admit to violating the law and not repeating it again. This was reflected in the case of journalist Avaz Zeynalli* who after being called in for questioning refused to sign the issued warning. In such cases (when the warned entity does not sign the warning) it does not remove or cancel the warning. Also worth noting is that there are no specific points mentioned in the existing legislation about measures leveled against entities who refuse to sign the warnings.  

Finally, while these official warnings are carried out as preventive measures against violating existing legislation the procedural action itself is prescribed neither in the criminal law nor in the Code of Administrative Offenses. And according to the Supreme Court of the Republic of Azerbaijan, “warnings” must be examined within the framework of administrative proceedings by the administrative courts. As such, the court clearly states, that warnings are issued within the framework of administrative proceedings, the prosecutor’s office functions as a law enforcement authority and has the authority to summon the individual to introduce the warnings. Such instances of summoning and conversations are apparently mandatory and carried out by the Prosecutors like “procedural coercive measures” indicated in the Criminal Procedure Code. Nevertheless, once again, it is important to note that the warning(s) is not a sanction within the meaning of criminal law and administrative offenses law and therefore prosecutor’s office shall not apply procedural coercive measures in the absence of any offense. 

*The decision of Supreme Court of the Republic of Azerbaijan, № 2-1(102)-134/2019, 14.05.2019, Avaz Zeynallı v.Chief Prosecutor’s office.

Conclusion

What the cases above illustrate is that there is a problematic and overbroad application of legal measures against social media users, journalists, and media in Azerbaijan. The examples further indicate the application of restrictive information law (which includes vaguely defined grounds to restrict free speech) against free speech on the internet and its likelihood of violating freedom of speech and media freedom standards.

Social media users, journalists, and media may argue that government regulations and their overbroad application by the Prosecutor General’s Office impermissibly infringe their freedom of speech guaranteed under the Constitution and international conventions to which Azerbaijan is a party.

Furthermore, there are almost no reports of domestic courts rejecting petitions by the prosecutor’s office against people’s rights to exercise their right to freedom of speech online, creating additional concerns about the absence of effective judicial and other remedies against the arbitrary use of domestic legislation against speech freedom rights.

As mentioned in the analysis above, one of the main challenges is that in its current form, the law on Information as well as the Code of Administrative Offenses provides vaguely defined grounds which are then used by the Prosecutor General’s Office with wide and arbitrary discretion, and at times, in the absence of any clear citing of the permissible grounds in the law. Such interference with freedom of speech is not compatible with the international standards which require that the restrictions on freedom of speech are clearly defined and concisely envisaged in the law and pursue legitimate aims as prescribed in national laws.

An analysis of most of the above cases shows that the Prosecutor General’s Office and the domestic courts interfere in freedom of expression without the proper legal grounds required for such interferences. The content of the impugned remarks characterized by the Prosecutor General’s Office and domestic courts as false, inaccurate, aimed to create a sensation, or to put pressure on the government and democratic institutions is not explicitly mentioned in the Law on Information, Informatization, and Information protection. This is against international standards which require that the national authorities intervening in the freedom of expression must have a basis in national laws (as a rule, this would mean a written and public law adopted by parliament), as well as must demonstrate sufficient reasons for justifying the interference and carefully balancing the applicants’ right to freedom of expression with the other permissible (legitimate) grounds

Azerbaijan is obligated to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information both online and offline, including on public health. International human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19) and European Convention on Human Rights (Article 10) permit restrictions on freedom of speech only if they are provided for by law, are strictly necessary and proportionate to achieving a legitimate aim.

Considering the increased scope of the legal harassment, it would be fair to conclude that such a large-scale punitive and deterrent legal measures against freedom of expression by law enforcement authorities is aimed at silencing legitimate criticism, discouraging citizens from expressing their views, and further suffocating the freedom of expression on the Internet.

Azerbaijan blocks access to Pro-Iran websites – multiple reports

As of October 23, Azerbaijan blocked access to a number of pro-Iran websites. The decision follows a rift in diplomatic ties between Azerbaijan and Iran over the course of the past two months. 

According to IranIntl website, Azerbaijan blocked access to these websites to prevent Iranian and religious propaganda.  

The blocking was first reported by journalist Elchin Alioglu via Facebook page. Alioglu also said that access to the religious video series spreading Iranian propaganda on YouTube was also blocked.  

Media censorship in Azerbaijan through the lens of network measurement – July 2021 report

On July 1, Azerbaijan Internet Watch launched a new report titled “Media censorship in Azerbaijan through the lens of network measurement”. The report was prepared in partnership with the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) summarising key findings from network measurements conducted between January 2020 to May 2021. The full report can be accessed here.

About the report

In light of reports on the blocking of websites in Azerbaijan, the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and Azerbaijan Internet Watch (AIW) formed a partnership to collaborate on researching internet censorship in the country. Over the past year, OONI and AIW have collaborated on collecting and regularly analyzing censorship measurements from Azerbaijan, while providing timely updates through reports. In this report, we share findings from our analysis of OONI network measurements collected from Azerbaijan between 1st January 2020 to 1st May 2021. The aim of this study is to document and increase the transparency of internet censorship in Azerbaijan through the analysis of empirical network measurement data.

Key findings

  • Blocking of independent news media and circumvention tool websites. Throughout the testing period, several independent news media and circumvention tool sites presented HTTP failures caused by connection timeouts. This suggests the potential use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) by ISPs in Azerbaijan.
  • Attempts to block Tor and Psiphon. ISPs in Azerbaijan attempted to block Tor and Psiphon amid the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. However, both attempts appear to have been quite ineffective. 
  • Temporary blocking of social media amid 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Between September 2020 to November 2020, several social media websites presented the same HTTP failures (as news media and circumvention tool sites), while the testing of WhatsApp and Telegram presented signs of TLS level interference.
  • Variance of censorship across networks. ISPs in Azerbaijan appear to be adopting similar censorship techniques. However, censorship varies from network to network, as different ISPs block different websites and apps at different moments in time.

Blocked news media websites

Several independent news media websites presented signs of blocking in Azerbaijan throughout the analysis period.

These domains include:

  1. `azerbaycansaati.tv`
  2. `criminal.az` 
  3. `www.24saat.org` 
  4. `www.abzas.net` 
  5. `www.azadliq.info`
  6. `www.azadliq.org`
  7. `www.gununsesi.info`
  8. `www.gununsesi.org`
  9. `www.kanal13.tv`
  10. `www.meydan.tv`

OONI data also suggests that the site (`www.occrp.org`) of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the site (`www.rferl.org`) of RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty (RFE/RFL) were blocked in Azerbaijan as well. The blocking of the OCCRP site reportedly began in September 2017, following the publication of a major investigation (“Azerbaijani Laundromat”) into corruption, bribery, and money laundering in which powerful figures were allegedly involved. The blocking of the RFE/RFL website also reportedly began in 2017, following an Azerbaijani court order which RFE/RFL described as “another blatant attempt at silencing its reporting in the country”

Blocking of social media amid 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war

Amid the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, OONI data shows that access to several social media websites and apps was blocked in Azerbaijan. The following chart, limited to social media websites that presented signs of blocking between February 2020 to May 2021, aggregates OONI measurement findings collected from 4 AS networks in Azerbaijan.

Blocking of social media websites in Azerbaijan based on OONI data (collected between March 2020 to May 2021), https://explorer.ooni.org/search?since=2020-01-01&probe_cc=AZ&test_name=web_connectivity&only=anomalies

As is evident from the above chart, most of these social media websites primarily presented signs of blocking during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war (between 27th September 2020 to 10th November 2020), but were found accessible when tested (on several networks in Azerbaijan) in the months before and after the war. Notably, most anomalous measurements presented HTTP failures (because the HTTP requests timed out), similarly to the blocking of news media websites (discussed previously). This provides a stronger indication that these social media websites were blocked, particularly since ISPs often use the same censorship technique(s) to block a variety of different websites. 

Blocked circumvention tool sites

Numerous circumvention tool websites presented signs of potential blocking when tested (on up to 3 AS networks) in Azerbaijan between February 2020 to May 2021, as illustrated through the following chart.

Blocking of circumvention tool websites in Azerbaijan based on OONI data (collected between January 2020 to May 2021), https://explorer.ooni.org/search?since=2020-01-01&probe_cc=AZ&test_name=web_connectivity&only=anomalies

Similar to the blocking of news media and social media websites, we observe that the testing of circumvention tool websites often resulted in HTTP failures caused by connection timeouts. This consistency in terms of failures, observed on several AS networks over the period of a year, strongly suggests blocking of these circumvention tool websites. As testing coverage increased from January 2021 onwards, we observed an increased volume of anomalous measurements, most presenting the same HTTP failures.

Conclusion

Press freedom appears to be quite limited in Azerbaijan, as suggested by the blocking of several independent news media websites in the country. These media websites presented signs of blocking throughout their testing (on several local AS networks) between January 2020 to May 2021 (corroborating past reports on the blocking of media websites in Azerbaijan), with recent OONI measurements suggesting that their blocking remains ongoing

Potentially in an attempt to prevent the circumvention of media censorship, ISPs in Azerbaijan appear to have blocked access to a number of circumvention tool websites over the last year as well. It remains unclear, however, if the apps of these circumvention tool sites were also blocked (as they were not tested as part of this study); and even if they were, it’s possible that local internet users may have been able to use them nonetheless, given that circumvention tools often include in-built circumvention techniques for evading censors. 

Amid the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, ISPs in Azerbaijan appear to have attempted to block the Tor and Psiphon circumvention tools. Yet, these attempts were likely ineffective, given that both tools have in-built circumvention techniques and fallback options for circumventing blocks. In Tor measurements, we observe that most ISPs did not block all tested Tor directory authorities, suggesting that it was possible to use Tor nonetheless (as also indicated by the spike in Tor usage from Azerbaijan during that period). Similarly, many Psiphon measurements during this period were successful, suggesting that it may have been possible to use the Psiphon VPN on many networks.

Several social media websites (such as `www.facebook.com` and `www.youtube.com`) and apps (primarily WhatsApp and Telegram) presented signs of blocking between September 2020 to November 2020, which coincides with the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. It is, therefore, possible that ISPs may have increased efforts to block circumvention tools (during this period) in an attempt to prevent the circumvention of social media censorship.

Interestingly, we observe similar censorship techniques adopted by different ISPs in Azerbaijan, but variance in terms of which internet services are blocked by ISPs over time. In other words, we see ISPs blocking websites and apps in similar ways (seemingly using the same censorship techniques), but different ISPs block access to different websites and apps (and sometimes this varies at different moments in time). 

Throughout the testing period, independent news media and circumvention tool websites presented HTTP failures caused by connection timeouts, suggesting the potential use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) by ISPs in Azerbaijan. Similarly, when social media websites were temporarily blocked amid the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, their testing also presented HTTP failures caused by connection timeouts. This suggests that most ISPs in Azerbaijan block websites using similar (if not the same) censorship techniques.

Both WhatsApp and Telegram presented signs of TLS level interference on several different AS networks in Azerbaijan amid the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. In the case of WhatsApp, the HTTP requests to `web.whatsapp.com` succeeded, while the HTTPS requests failed (during the TLS handshake), which could be an indication of SNI-based filtering. In the case of Telegram, we see that both HTTP and HTTPS requests to `web.telegram.org` timed out. 

As media censorship (and the blocking of circumvention tool websites) appears to be ongoing in Azerbaijan, there is a need for further testing to evaluate these censorship events in more depth over time. The temporary blocking of social media amid the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war also suggests that new censorship events can emerge in Azerbaijan, as political events evolve. 

This study was carried out through the use of open methodologies, free and open source software, and open data, enabling independent third-party verification of our research findings. We encourage researchers to expand upon this study by running OONI Probe and analyzing OONI measurements from Azerbaijan.    

Legal analysis of a COVID tracing app released last year in Azerbaijan

This is part three in a series of detailed legal reports and analyses on existing legal amendments, and new legislation affecting privacy, freedom of expression, media, and online rights in Azerbaijan and their compliance with international standards for freedom of expression.  

In July, of last year, authorities in Azerbaijan released their very own COVID tracing tracker application. Launched by Tebib (Azerbaijan Administration of Regional Medical Division) the app was quick to draw attention, especially over its privacy issues.

The mobile app is operated by the Data Processing Center (DPC), which is the main structure of the information technologies of the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies. According to the app’s version history at App Store, the application “update” was done on 27 May 2021. 

e-Tebib is just one of the deluge of apps unveiled during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic by various governments, promising to detect COVID-19 exposure and not only.

Below, we break down the pervasiveness of the app having analyzed existing national and international legislation.

Features and concerns

According to the app’s description, “E-Tebib is designed to inform users in real-time about the number of patients (both sick and recovered) in Azerbaijan.” Since the start of the pandemic, the official data for Azerbaijan on the number of infected patients and recoveries were made available here and the numbers were updated once a day – based on the numbers reported by the Operational Headquarters set up under the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Azerbaijan (the unit was established on February 27, 2020). Already from the start, it was unlikely the app was going to provide real-time indicators when the main body in charge only shared the information once a day. 

In addition, article 4.4 in the user agreement of the app, explicitly said that any information, obtained through the app, may not be precise, correct, or trusted. And yet, the app also claimed to reduce the number of infected patients by informing users of potential COVID infected patients around them via Bluetooth technology. 

Although the app claimed it did not collect any personal data aside from the user’s phone number the article 5.3 of the license agreement stated, the center [the Ministry of Communication, Transportation and High Technologies who owns the app’s license] collected users’ names, last names, phone numbers, social media accounts, emails, national ID numbers, and location.

Article 5.1 mentioned the center was sharing this information with third parties. These third parties were allowed to analyze collected information including users’ browsing history [The center did claim that it did not allow third parties, to use the obtained information for other purposes]. Article 5.5.1 stated the center may share users’ information with government bodies and/or representatives’ legal requests; court orders; or under any other legal condition. Furthermore, article 5.6 stated that users’ information may be shared with third parties in other countries for security purposes.

What the law says

According to Article 5.1 of the Law on Personal Data personal information is protected from the moment it is collected and for this purpose, it is divided into confidential and public categories according to the type of access. Article 5.2 of the Law on Personal Data stipulates that confidential personal data must be protected by the owner, operator, and users who have access to this information on a level required by law. Confidential personal information may be disclosed to third parties only with the consent of the subject, except as provided by law. Article 5.3 of the Law on Personal Data defines open personal data as information anonymously duly declared, made public by the subject, or entered into the information system with the consent of the subject. The person’s name, surname, and patronymic are permanently open personal information.

The terms of the agreement [of the app] on sharing private information with the third parties are vaguely regulated and open to wide interpretation for unlawful transmission of the private information with third parties.

Furthermore, article 5.5.1 of the app’s agreement that states information might be shared upon the government representatives’ legal requests are problematic from the human rights perspective. It fails to specify on which grounds and under what conditions the state authorities might request the private information which is necessary for terms of procedural fairness and safeguards against arbitrariness.

Where personal information is stored for the interest of the protection of health, there should be adequate and effective guarantees against abuse by the state. The law in question, which allows the storing of such information, must indicate with sufficient clarity the scope and conditions of exercise of the authorities’ discretionary power. These standards to some extent are also backed in Article 11.2.2 of the Law on Personal Data which states that when collecting personal data, the owner or operator must notify the subject about the purpose of personal data that is being processed and the legal grounds of this purpose.

In other words, it is not clear whether any state authority can have access to private information simply upon requesting it without legal justification. This is also a requirement of the Law “About operational search activities” as per Article 10. Thus, Article 10 of the Law states that the extraction of information from technical communication channels and other technical means is carried out on the basis of the decision of the court [judge].

Article 5.10., of the app’s user agreement states that all user-related data is kept for a month. But it fails to explain whether the same expiry date applies to “third parties” that may have access[ed] [to the] users’ information. This is contrary to Article 8.2., of the Law on Personal Data. Law on Personal Data requires that for the purpose of collecting and processing of personal data (specifically Article 8.2.3.,) and conditions of destruction or archiving of personal data collected in the relevant information system after the expiration of the period of storage or after the death of the subject in the manner prescribed by law must include a written consent for the processing of the subject’s personal data.

Such vagueness is also contrary to the ECtHR’s well-established case law. In Aycaguer v. France case, the ECtHR ruled, there was a violation of Article 8 (right to respect for private life) of the Convention by “determining the duration of storage of […] personal data depending on the purpose of the file stored […]”. The Court noted that, to date, no appropriate action was taken on that reservation and that there was currently no provision for differentiating the period of storage. The Court also ruled that the regulations on the storage of DNA profiles did not provide the data subjects with sufficient protection, owing to its duration and the fact that the data could not be deleted. The regulations, therefore, failed to strike a fair balance between the competing public and private interests.

Another concern was that the application was developed by A2Z Advisors LLC and the app’s privacy policy was linked to the company’s website. The landing page of A2Z Advisors LLC, however, did not provide any information on the app’s privacy policy. At the time when the app was launched, AIW reached out for comment via email as per A2Z’s recommendation but never received a response.

Similarly, in the App Store for IOs when clicking on the “App Support” tab, the page once again led to the A2Z company website and once again failed to provide any information related to the App. Instead, the privacy policy was accessible via this link that a user had access to but only after downloading and launching the app. This in itself was contrary to the several articles of the Law on Personal Data.

According to Article 11 of the law, it is required, when collecting personal data, that the owner or operator, notifies the subject about the level of protection of personal data collected and processed in the information system [11.2.3.]; the information on the existence of a certificate of conformity of information systems and state examination [11.2.4.]; and the scope of the intended uses of personal data, including the information system for which the information is to be exchanged [11.2.5.]. However, no such information was provided in the app’s agreement.

The app was also not an open-source code and was licensed under the Ministry of Communication, Transportation, and High Technologies. This is contrary to the requirement [Article 6.22.,] of the Resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers about “Requirements on creation and management of Internet information resources of state bodies”, which requires that open source content management systems should not be used in internet information resources.

FaktYoxla, a fact-checking platform in Azerbaijan concluded after a detailed legal analysis over the license agreement that e-Tebib was not designed in accordance with the national legislation on data privacy. The fact-checking platform, having analyzed the respective case-law of the European Court, the EU Data Protection Directive, and the Council of Europe Treaty 108, concluded that the e-Tebib application contradicted the obligations imposed by international standards.

On July 10, 2020, following widespread privacy concerns and questions over the app’s transparency, changes were made to the terms of the agreement.

Originally users’ information was transferred to third parties, which were not explicitly defined in the agreement. At the time, independent experts and lawyers said this was against Article 32 of Azerbaijan’s state constitution and in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  Azerbaijan’s constitution, namely, Article 8, stipulates that no one has a right to collect personal information without an individual’s permission. The convention, on the other hand, refers to respect for privacy. 

***In Copland v. the United Kingdom case (no. 62617/00, ECHR 2007-I), the Court found that it was irrelevant that the data held by the college where the applicant worked was not disclosed or used against her in disciplinary or other proceedings. Just storing the data amounted to an interference with private life.

The updated license agreement said that only under necessary circumstances, and within the normative legal framework personal information may be transferred to third parties. The revised agreement, still, fails to explicitly mention the precise list of institutions considered under third parties.

Fuad Niftaliyev – the head of the app development project later explained that the third parties referred to in the agreement are the Ministry of Health, Tebib, and the Operational Headquarters [set up under the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Azerbaijan]. Niftaliyev clarified that the collected information was stored on the servers operated by the Ministry of Communication and Information, however that too was problematic, given the questionable transparency of the government institutions in Azerbaijan especially as surveillance technology is widely used by the ministries alike. 

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.