instagram user from Azerbaijan explicitly targets women online – will Facebook and Google take notice?

Violence and harassment against women in Azerbaijan have reached a new level when a user named [@] panturaloriginal mocked women and the way they choose to dress during a live feed via his Instagram account. While the video is no longer available on the user’s Instagram account Shafi Shafiyev, an activist from Azerbaijan shared one part of the video via his Twitter:

Here is a brief translation of what user panturaloriginal is saying in the video: “There are some women who encourage men to slap them from behind when they open their body parts. You just want to slap them. And if they turn around and ask why I would tell them ‘are you out of your mind?! You have left your body parts exposed and I am slapping them. Are you messing with me?!’ Why do you leave your parts exposed? If they are, then I will touch them. I enjoy it. You are playing with my natural instinct.  Do I have to walk around like a blind man [covering his eyes with his hands] because of you? Then dress properly. Cover your body parts. Why is it so important for you to show it? If you are showing it, then I will slap you. I enjoy it. It turns me on. This is how I have been made. It is a natural sensation. Why do I have to control myself?! You have left your body parts exposed, so I am going to slap it like that.”

On July 1, 2021, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Google made commitments to tackle the abuse of women on their platforms as more than 200 women signed a letter calling for tech companies to “prioritize the safety of women.” 

Among their commitments announced at the UN Generation Equality Forum in Paris are: 

Build better ways for women to curate their safety online by:

  • Offering more granular settings (e.g. who can see, share, comment or reply to posts)
  • Using more simple and accessible language throughout the user experience
  • Providing easy navigation and access to safety tools
  • Reducing the burden on women by proactively reducing the amount of abuse they see

Implement improvements to reporting systems by:

  • Offering users the ability to track and manage their reports
  • Enabling greater capacity to address context and/or language
  • Providing more policy and product guidance when reporting abuse
  • Establish additional ways for women to access help and support during the reporting process

The user has two Instagram accounts [panturallive] and [panturaloriginal] and a youtube channel [pantural]. The account from which the live feed was done, has over 68k followers. Both Instagram accounts are now private. 

what’s new in the new media law

The plans to roll out a new Media Law in Azerbaijan were announced in January 2021 following a Presidential Decree “on deepening media reforms in the Republic of Azerbaijan.” In addition to a new Media Law, the decree also called for an establishment of a brand new body, the Azerbaijani Agency for Media Development replacing the State Support Fund for Mass Media Development. 

Six months after the initial announcement, the law is ready, but not for the public eye or independent journalists. The critics say, the law will further restrict the work of independent and opposition media platforms, while supporters argue the law will strengthen the media environment in the country. 

According to Ahmad Ismayilov, the Executive Director at the newly set up Agency for Media Development, the law – which is currently being developed behind-closed-door discussions – will be evaluated by the parliament in its final form, and only after the reading at the parliament will be open to public debate. 

What is known about some of the provisions

  • one unified registry system for media outlets, their offices, and journalists in order to systematize information on media entities, their offices and staff (this specifically has caused dissatisfaction among independent journalists and bloggers, according to Turan News Agency reporting);
  • the registration process requires that all print, online media platforms, news agencies, and journalists apply for registration;
  • a separate body – Audiovisual Council – will register audiovisual media platforms;
  • all media platforms and journalists registered through the system will receive certificates and press cards (valid for three years) respectively;
  • the registration system does not apply to foreign journalists who will require to receive approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
  • all media platforms must be legally registered and show proof of sustainability with registering;
  • journalists registering through the system, will be required to meet a set of requirements – those without higher education, previous convictions won’t be registered; journalists must provide contracts with media platforms that must be registered within the system; journalists must provide at least three years of work experience or relevant work experience;
  • the registry may remove media platforms and journalists already registered;  
  • the draft law will require internet television to obtain licenses in order to operate;
  • the draft law will be submitted to the national parliament (no dates announced yet); put on the agenda and posted on the Parliament’s website. Only then will there be a discussion on the main provisions and assessments of the overall bill;
  • the draft law prohibits state censorship and financing of the media; 
  • the draft law ensures pluralism and freedom of the media; 
  • according to one of the provisions, illegal interference in the work of journalists, their persecution, and harassment are inadmissible; 

According to Rustam Ahmadov, director of the Media Development Agency’s Department for Work with Media Entities and Journalists and Media Support Projects, it is possible that the bill will be adopted in the first reading. But it is also possible the draft will be returned for revision, to address suggestions and comments. “Unfortunately, I can not say exactly when the bill will be submitted to the parliament,” Ahmadov told Turan News Agency in an interview. 

Pundits’ response

Until the bill has been made public, it is hard to comment on its transparency said media lawyer Khalid Agaliyev in an interview with Turan News Agency. So far, the closed discussions are only creating doubts and eliminating optimism about the progress of the law, said a media lawyer. 

Aghaliyev pointed to three issues about the draft law that is especially worrying, “unified registry of journalists, licensing of online media, the creation of a media register (that would also require registration of their staff). All three are seriously controversial in terms of the concept of the right to freedom of expression, and there are elements of discrimination.”

On the provision about single press cards Aghaliyev said, this provision would allow the government to choose who keeps tabs on the work the government does because, under normal circumstances, it is the media and journalists who exercise public control over government activities. Aghaliyev also pointed out that the right to access, prepare and disseminate information is not only given to journalists but to every citizen according to the Constitution and international agreements Azerbaijan signed. Enforcing the single card rule is not an additional opportunity. “There are editorial offices established in accordance with the law, there is an editorial policy, their press cards should suffice to take advantage of the opportunities created by the state for journalists,” said Aghaliyev.

On the provision about licensing internet television and one single registry, Aghaliyev said this would go against the right to freedom of expression. “Rules such as the creation of a register of all media outlets and the registration of those included in the register as journalists are seriously problematic and discriminatory in terms of the right to freedom of expression.”

Aghaliyev also reminded that a media registry already exists in Azerbaijan as newspapers must inform the Ministry of Justice and once approved, start operating. “In this case, the creation of a separate register indicates the intention to more easily control, direct and suppress the media and journalists.” 

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.    

editor facing slander and insult charges

In Azerbaijan, editor of an online news website sozcu.az, Elshan Alisoy is facing slander and insult charges and a hefty fine. The charges leveled against the editor are related to the claims, raised by the Vice President of SOCAR [Azerbaijan State Oil Company] Mikayil Ismayilov. 

The vice president’s demands include a 100,000 AZN compensation [58.8 thousandUSD] for moral damage, charges of slander [Article 147], and insult [Article 148] of the Criminal Code of Azerbaijan and closed-door hearing, over an article, Alisoy shared on Facebook. 

On June 22, a preparatory meeting was held in the Agsu District Court according to reporting by Turan News Agency. The agency reports that the hearing on the merits is scheduled for June 25. 

The editor’s lawyer, Nemat Karimli, says the acceptance of the claim into proceedings is unlawful. “According to Article 60 of the Law on Media, a person who reprints [reshares] an article published in another media is not responsible for the content.”

Titled, “The dark empire of Mikayil Ismayilov” the original article, that the blogger shared on his Facebook, was originally published by an online platform azadsoz.com [free word] on May 18, alleging that Mikayil Ismayilov oversees the management of the entire financial process in SOCAR’s covert operations.

Reposting the article, Elshan Alisoy, wrote the following comment, “Dear God, why they need all this wealth… Mikail Ismayilov is one of the 12 vice presidents of SOCAR. I call this, gluttony and barbarity.”  

The hearing in the case is scheduled for June 25. 

Azerbaijan to license online TV channels

In January, 2021, Az-Net Watch covered the new legal development concerning media freedom environment in Azerbaijan. At the time, it was announced, that a newly established Azerbaijani Agency for Media Development will replace, marred by corruption allegations, the State Support Fund for Mass Media Development and that a new media law was drafted by the Administration of the President for the President’s review in two months. Six months down the line, the draft media law, is finally set for review, albeit much to the disappointment of freedom of the media advocates and media practitioners in Azerbaijan.

According to Azadliq Radio report, the new law, entails licensing the Internet television and radio broadcasting. The proposal spearheaded by the National Television and Radio Council (NTRC) was announced on June 17.

Specifically the draft law states that:

1) the online channel must have its own website and broadcast from this site;

2) the online channels must broadcast for not less than 6 hours as determined by the proposed new draft bill.

In addition, the Agency for the Development of Mass Media would register online news sties and news agencies.

When Turan News Agency reached out to the NTRC for a comment, the Council refuted the claims that the draft bill mentioned the Internet TV. Similarly, when the agency asked the newly created Agency for Media Development, the agency said, it had no information of such requirement mentioned in the bill. And yet, it was the NTRC that told state news agency APA about the draft bill according to Azadliq Radio report.

Several independent experts, said if true, the new bill and specifically the proposal about licensing, violate Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and norms enshrined in Azerbaijan’s Constitution.

Addressing the controversial new bill, a media law expert, Alasgar Mammadli, said in addition to contradicting Article 10 of the Convention the license requirement can only be applied to broadcasters using frequency transmissions which is not the case for Internet television. In another interview, Mammadli said, “Only during the broadcast, there should be compliance with the general law, which is currently regulated by the Law on Mass Media, Criminal Law, and other laws. There are no gaps, and there are even unnecessary regulations (restrictions).” 

Another legal expert, Khaled Aghaliyev, evaluating the bill in a post on social media platform Facebook said, “It was clear that the government, which promised progressive reforms in the legal regulation of the media, worked harder than ever on reactionary regulatory mechanisms.” Aghaliyev said, in all likelihood, the lawyers working on “progressive regulations” took it upon themselves to interpret one specific sentence of Article 10 word for word. That sentence, notes Aghaliyev says, “This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.” “But they [lawyers] thought wrong. The mentioning of that licensing applies only to traditional television, and radio. Therefore, the part of the new bill that we know of, is reactionary, binding freedom of expression. It does not comply with our constitutional norms or the European Convention.”

Stressing the importance of adopting a new media law, Aghaliyev instead offers a different approach. “The government should share the full text of the new draft law and let the civil society prepare an alternative. The two drafts should then go to the Council of Europe experts. Let the Council decide and adopt the one recommended instead.” [A similar initiative took place in 2017 when Azerbaijan’s civil society submitted an alternative analysis of the law on access to information as part of the Good Governance partnership]. 

Screen shot from the report “Compliance of the Republic of Azerbaijan with the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”. The full report can be accessed here: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CCPR/Shared%20Documents/AZE/INT_CCPR_CSS_AZE_25228_E.pdf
An attempt to license online television was previously discussed in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2016. Over the past decade, the national lawmakers suggested regulating social media platforms on several occasions as well. In March 2017, Azerbaijani lawmakers approved legislation tightening rules for Internet use. Shortly after, scores of independent and opposition news websites were blocked inside Azerbaijan for access. 
*”National Television and Radio Council (NTRC) of Azerbaijan, was established by decree № 794 of the President of Azerbaijan Republic dated October 5, 2002 to ensure the implementation and regulation of state policy in broadcasting sector. The objective of the Council is to regulate the activity of television and radio companies, protect interests of the public during the broadcast, and control the observance of legislation on broadcasting.”

6 journalists and bloggers behind bars in Azerbaijan

On June 8, Justice for Journalists issued a statement in support of jailed media workers worldwide. 

The Justice for Journalists Foundation and its Media Risk Map partners monitoring attacks on media workers in the post-Soviet space call on international organisations and governments of all countries to do their utmost to secure the early release of all incarcerated media workers and to end the barbaric violations of their rights. According to the JFJ’s experts, at least 84 media workers from Azerbaijan, Belarus, Crimea, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are awaiting trial in detention or under house arrests, or have already been sentenced to long-term imprisonment and are held in prisons and prison camps. 

According to JfJ the following journalists and bloggers remain behind bars in 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. 

Azerbaijan takes stock of Turkey’s social media law

In recent years, as social media platforms gained popularity among Azerbaijani users to express concern and criticize the ruling authorities, the government officials were quick to react. At several meetings of the national parliament, members voiced opinions about the need to control social media platforms.

In May the discussions were back on the table.

According to Azadliq Radio, Azerbaijan Service for Radio Liberty, several members of the parliament and experts expressed discomfort over insult and slander often used on social media platforms.

Some of them were quick to offer amendments to existing national legislation, introducing punishments for such cases.

Fazil Mustafa, a member of the Human Rights Committee at the National Parliament said, while it is impossible to control social media platforms, using the Turkey example it is important that popular platforms and companies have legal representatives in Azerbaijan. This won’t be government control over social media platforms but rather a constructive partnership between the government and the companies’ representatives in the country.

This is not uncommon in countries with low democracy scores said media law expert Alasgar Mammadli. In these countries, the leadership is trying to introduce strict control measures under the pretext of protecting user rights and interests. “It is possible that like in Turkey where companies were forced to open offices, Azerbaijan would do the same. They may be asked to remove some personal information. Otherwise, they would be limited in their activities in the country or face fines,” said Mammadli in an interview with Azadliq Radio.

Alternatively, the authorities may consider introducing bans on some of the platforms but this won’t be effective according to Mammadli. “Experience shows that when Turkey blocked access to platforms like YouTube and Twitter, their user base only grew. Which means this may not be an effective method.”

Although, self-censorship is pervasive among ordinary social media users, who often face offline criminal charges for their online activism criticism of government policies and decisions on social media platforms is common and in some cases proven effective in changing the course of government decision-making.

Freedom House, Freedom on the Net, Azerbaijan country report 2019

In October 2018, a lawmaker proposed requiring internet users to register their social media accounts by linking them to their government-issued identity documents.

In February 2019, members of the parliament began discussing plans for new legislation. Musa Guliyev proposed creating a national social network and restricting access to all other platforms in order to “prevent people from slandering Azerbaijan.” Another member, Ziyafat Asgarov, suggested amending the Law on Mass Media to prevent social media users from insulting “the lawful actions, the personality, the honor or the dignity” of others. That same month, Aliyev signed a decree aimed at establishing a Social Research Center, which will monitor public opinion online, primarily through polling.

These statements came in the aftermath of a series of heated public discussions online. Among them was a campaign to drop newly leveled charges against imprisoned blogger Mehman Huseynov that would have extended his two-year sentence by an additional seven years. Huseynov went on hunger strike shortly after the new charges were announced, prompting an outpouring of support on social media under the hashtag #FreeMehman. In January 2019, thousands of people rallied in Baku to protest the government’s persecution of Huseynov. The rally, organized online, was among the country’s largest protests in recent years. The new charges were eventually dropped, and Huseynov was released in March 2019, after serving his two-year sentence.

Freedom House, Freedom on the Net, Azerbaijan country report, 2020

Following campaigns and rallies organized online in October 2019 and February 2020, the government indicated that it is interested in regulating platforms, with one lawmaker describing social media as an instrument for “moral terrorism.”In March 2020, one member of parliament proposed the creation of a dedicated body to monitor social media platforms and hold users who spread rumors accountable.

Azerbaijan already has laws in place criminalizing online speech. In 2013, general provisions on defamation and insult were expanded to include criminal liability for online content. Article 147.1 of the criminal code criminalizes the “dissemination, in … a publicly displayed internet information resource, of knowingly false information discrediting the honor and dignity of a person or damaging his or her reputation.” Article 148 of the criminal code similarly criminalizes “deliberate humiliation of the honor and dignity of a person, expressed in an obscene manner … through a publicly displayed internet information resource.” Also in 2016, changes to Article 323 of the criminal code introduced a maximum prison sentence of two years for defaming the president in mass media, which include social media. Defaming the president through fake “usernames, profiles, or accounts” may result in a three-year prison sentence. Falsely accusing the president of “having committed a serious or especially serious crime” online may result in a five-year prison sentence. In 2017, the fines associated with these offenses were increased.

Taking into account Azerbaijan’s human rights track record, the likelihood of new bills (especially those similar to Turkey) is not far-fetched.

Amnesty International statement calls to stop gender-based reprisals in Azerbaijan

On May 12, Amnesty International released a statement calling to stop gender-based reprisals in Azerbaijan. 

“Women human rights defenders have faced threats, coercion, violations of their right to privacy and smear campaigns that are gender-specific and target them as women. This type of gender-based violence and discrimination aims to silence their critical voices and discredit their work. It also seeks to punish them for speaking out as women,” reads the statement. 

The statement documents the recent attacks and harassment women activists have faced for their work, outspokenness, or for simply being family members of government critics. 

AIW reported on these attacks previously:

February 26, 2021 – Activist’s personal messages leaked after hacking [update March 9];

March 9, 2021 – Targeted harassment via telegram channels and hacked Facebook accounts [updated March 15];

March 16, 2021 – Coordinated digital attacks against Feminist movement members and LGBT rights activists

March 25, 2021 – Exiled blogger continues to receive threats [updated March 31];

March 28, 2021 – Facebook page, advertising telegram channel, targeting a woman activist [update March 30];

April 14, 2021 – Activists trolled for exposing child abuse in Azerbaijan

The report concludes that:

Azerbaijan has an obligation under international human rights law to take all appropriate measures to prevent gender-based violence and other human rights violations against women, including violations of their right to privacy. The Azerbaijani authorities must conduct a prompt, impartial and effective investigation into each and every reported incident of such violence, as well as of instances of reported discrimination or harassment of women, in order to identify and bring to justice in fair proceedings anyone reasonably suspected of being culpable or complicit in such acts, whether they are private individuals or members of security services or other state officials. Women who have suffered these violations should be provided with effective remedies and reparations including restitution, compensation, rehabilitation and guarantees of non-repetition. Azerbaijan must ensure that every person’s rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are respected and that women are able to fully enjoy these rights, including in the form of women’s marches.

man beaten over social media post [update April 30]

[Update] The spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior Ehsan Zahidov said following the investigation, all men identified in the video were arrested and questioned. The men were family members of the soldier mentioned in the original tweet. 

In Azerbaijan, a man was beaten over a social media post that was not even his.

On April 28, a group of men beat up social media humorist Fuad Rasulzade. In the video widely distributed across social media platforms, the men are seen twisting his arms, hitting him, and accusing him of disrespecting a soldier, who was killed during the second Karabakh war in a social media post.

Eventually, Rasulzade was let go. After a medical examination, he was discharged without major injuries.

The Ministry of the Interior said it was informed of the incident and will investigate the men who beat up Rasulzade.

Turns out, the post over which Rasulzade was attacked was not even his and was shared first by another friend. After telling Rasulzade that he has been receiving threats, Rasulade wrote on Facebook that the idea belonged to him. The original post was shared a month ago, on March 27.