Ali Karimli, the head of the opposition Popular Front Party, and his spouse Samara Seyidova said they are preparing for the European Court of Human Rights, having received no response from domestic courts concerning their home internet connections being cut off since April of last year.
AIW was documenting Karimli’s case since April 13 when the opposition boss encountered connection issues before a live interview with journalist Sevinc Osmangizi [for the detailed timeline please visit here].
Since then, despite numerous attempts, the leader of the Popular Front failed to resolve the problem through domestic courts. Most recently, the ruling of the Baku Appeal Court confirmed previous court decisions, thus ruling against the party head. The court of appeal is the final legal entity to accept and deal with similar complaints. “In such cases, the appeal to the Supreme Court is not expected. This is why we intend to take our complaint to the European Court,” said one of the lawyers defending Karimli in an interview with Azadliq Radio.
The defendants are the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies, Azercell mobile operator, AzQTEL internet provider, the Ministry of the Interior, State Security Service, and the Special State Protection Service. According to Karimli his rights were violated under Articles 6 (right to a fair trial), 8 (right to respect of family and private life), 10 (freedom of expression), 14 (prohibition of discrimination), and 18 (Limitation on use of restrictions on rights) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Karimli’s access to the internet was restored twice since April. Once on January 12 and in May but only briefly, for few hours. Karimli is certain the decision to cut him and his familly off internet is political. Government supporters think otherwise. Siyavush Novruzov, a parliament member, blamed Karimli for not paying his bills on time and laying the responsibility on the government. In the meantime, Azercell, the mobile operator [with ties to the government], said in a statement it does not discreminate among its customers based on their political views.
But while government representatives and affiliated companies claim otherwise, Karimli and his family members had their rights violated. According to a fact checking platform FaktYoxla Karimli’s case, goes against severeal articles and guarantees specieifed by the national constitution and can be described as an unlawful interference. Specifically, it is against the right to equality and freedom of expression, right to live in safety and privacy. In addition, actions against Karimly contradict the provisions of the Law on Telecommunications, Access to Information and Personal Information and are criminalized by criminal law.
AIW will continue documenting developments in the case of Ali Karimli and the family.
[UPDATE] On November 12, access to the Internet was finally restored across the country in Azerbaijan. This was shared in an announcement shared by the Ministry of Communication, Transportation and High Technologies on November 11. In a statement, the Ministry said:
The temporary restriction on Internet access imposed in our country in order to prevent large-scale provocations and cyber incidents committed by the Republic of Armenia will be lifted on November 12, 2020, with the exception of the territories liberated from occupation and former frontier zones.
The Ministry expresses gratitude to millions of Azerbaijani Internet users for their understanding in connection with the restriction on Internet access over the past period.
It should be noted that the Ministry of Transport, Communications and High Technologies imposed restrictions on the provision of Internet in the country on September 27, 2020.
ABC.az, a local online news platform, reported that restrictions remained in territories liberated from occupation and territories that previously belonged to the frontline zone.
November 11, the Cabinet of Ministers said it had no information about the lifting of restrictions on Internet access in the country while addressing Turan News Agency. Meanwhile, the head of an opposition Popular Front party Ali Karimli called for an immediate end to restrictions imposed on Internet access and to social media platforms. Unlike Karimli, the head of Azerbaijan Internet Forum, Osman Gunduz, sees gradual transition as an alternative. “Although the military operations are over, keeping restrictions imposed on social media platforms is needed.” Gunduz suggested keeping restrictions on WhatsApp and YouTube as these were two of the most popular platforms where false information about the fighting made rounds. In contrast, the head of the Internet Forum, it would be suitable to lift the ban on Twitter because this platform is widely used to disseminate information about the war to an international audience. Gunduz said similar restrictions are common practice across countries including in Europe and the UK where governments restricted internet access during mass protests. “In the UK, during acts of terrorism, the government restricted access to social media platforms.” Azerbaijan Internet Watch, could not verify this statement. Unlike Azerbaijan, the UK is ranked “free” in Freedom on the Net ranking by Freedom House. Similarly, most of the European countries, are categorized under “little or no censorship, and surveillance” countries.
As of November 7, access to the Internet remained limited with users of state operators Baktelecom and Aztelekom remaining largely disconnected or with slower than usual internet speed. The rest of the providers worked in a limited capacity while access to social media platforms remained blocked.
October 21, President Ilham Aliyev in an interview with the Japanese Nikkei newspaper said restrictions on Internet access and on the use of social media platforms in Azerbaijan are only temporary. “Once active fighting is over we will restore all access.”
October 20, State Security Service encouraged Azerbaijani citizens to refrain from using VPN providers when trying to access social media platforms that have been inaccessible as a result of the restrictions imposed by the government. It warned that some of the VPN providers such as SkyVPN is not trusted and can steal persona information. To its credit, the SSS is correct about the poor quality of this specific VPN service.
October 13, on the 16th day of escalated tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Internet access remains throttled in Azerbaijan. The Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies claims throttling is in line with government orders given the active state of military operations. But not to everyone. Independent media and journalists complain they have had issues posting news since the start of the recent conflict on September 27 on their websites and social media accounts. In addition to slowing down the Internet, on October 8, a story reported by Bloomberg identified the use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology in Azerbaijan to effectively block access to many of the social media platforms in the country as well. However, this is not the case for government news outlets and government institutions. The latter’s access to uninterrupted and undisrupted Internet highlights the inequality of access to information both by those who produce independent news as well as the audience of these platforms. Experts say that blocking specific content may align with the existing legal framework, however, throttling access to the Internet altogether is a violation of user rights.
October 10, while the spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies, Gunel Gozalova said in a statement to Report.az, that the ministry remains uncertain about the duration of the government imposed internet limitations, independent economy expert Togrul Mashalli, has raised the issue of the economic costs, the recent internet disruptions are posting. Writing through his personal Telegram channel, Mashalli wrote, “it is not just the social media platforms that are limited, but other services too. And this is happening across the whole country. According to the Netblocks Cost of Shutdown Tool, Azerbaijan’s economy is suffering from a total of 44.8millionUSD loss per day. So over the 13 days, this adds up to a 582,4million USD. Since the Internet has not fully been turned off, the total losses are probably around 200-250million USD (we should take into account that social media platforms are often an important part of local internet economy).”
October 9, Gunel Gozalova, spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies, said, the government has not shut down the internet. “We have only restricted the Internet. So no one can say, there is no internet at all […] The restrictions introduced are simply to prevent unwanted, unverified, war-related content on social networks. We have taken these measures to protect Azerbaijan’s positions in cyberspace.” The spokesperson said, she does not have any information about how long these restrictions will last. Other experts as the head of Azerbaijan Internet Forum, Osman Gunduz said, the restrictions should be taken with an understanding: “it is possible that we don’t have access to certain information and we can’t analyze what is happening as a result. We think if social media platforms and the internet remained completely open to access it would have been better. But this is not the case. It is normal that given the military situation this step was taken. This is legal. However, I am for having additional measures in place especially for those wanting to fight anti-Azerbaijan propaganda online. It is necessary to set up centers and create a suitable environment for media, experts, and others who have experience working in an international environment.”
October 8, ABC.az local online news platform released a list of VPN providers claiming they were allegedly Armenian providers. The list includes the following VPN services: Express VPN, Nord VPN, VPN 360, CyberGhost VPN, HMA Vpn, Surfshark VPN. While finding the right VPN provider is often challenging, and some of the listed companies do have murky ownership presenting these services as Armenian owned is inaccurate and misleading. Instead, ABC.az could have offered this source for comparisons of numerous VPN services.
October 3, a number of mobile operators came forward refuting claims of limiting access to users relying on VPN services from their devices. Nar mobile said they have not introduced any additional limitations to their users relying on VPN services, adding that within the recently introduced internet restrictions and for the sake of protecting their users’ information, users of the mobile operator may face restrictions while accessing “Nar+” application and “nar.az” website. “Information on your mobile devices, as well as passwords used for other applications can be stolen by third parties when using VPN applications. We call on our subscribers to protect their security and advice against the use of VPN applications,” said the mobile operator in an interview with MediaPost.
Another mobile operator Bakcell, said, no extra restrictions were applied by the operator. The company did however encourage its clients to resort to the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies on rules and recommendations about the use VPN services. “Given the current environment, citizens should accept the circumstances with an understanding and follow cyber security rules. It is also important, to pay attention to the origins and trustworthiness of the applications in use.”
Azercell Telekom said it bears no responsibility over its users devices, as well as their security and that it only provides its clients with internet connection within the scope of its telecom services, which include access to social media platforms and websites.
October 1, Government in Azerbaijan continues to pose limitations to Internet access as tensions continue on the front line. Joining them are internet providers and telecom companies. According to Azerbaijan Press Agency (APA), Azerfon mobile company (with alleged ties to the ruling family) told its users, that its website and the mobile application won’t be accessible for users, using VPN. At the time of writing this update, the website was inaccessible from abroad, without a VPN.
September 30, according to the most recent reports Internet access remains throttled in Azerbaijan. Users report:
Bakinternet (ISP)- not working
Access to social media platforms not possible without a VPN;
Whatsapp app and its web extension are not working (without a VPN);
WiFi connections are down for some;
Internet speed is slow;
Gmail is accessible without a VPN;
Some banks [ex. Rabitabank] has informed its customers their mobile app won’t be accessible if users have VPN active;
Bakcell [mobile operator] and Kapitalbank mobile apps are not accessible when VPN is used;
On its website, Bakinternet (an ISP for Bak Telecom) shared a similar statement seen earlier on the website of the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies: “In order to prevent provocations from Armenia, access to the Internet has been limited.”
⚠️DİQQƏT! 🔥Azərbaycanda iş yerlərində insanlardan VPN app-lərini silməyi tələb edirlər. 📌VPN istifadəsinin təhlükəli olduğu deyilir və bir çox insan da həmin tətbiqləri silir. 📌Həmçinin AzərTac-da VPN-nin təhlükəli olduğu barədə yazı, televiziyalarda da verilişlər yayımlanıb. pic.twitter.com/aeXYo9MsJE
Employees are asked to delete VPN apps at the workplaces; They are told using VPN is dangerous; AzerTac (state news agency) published articles and aired TV shows discussing the dangers of VPN;
According to the VPN service Surfshark website, the sale of VPN in Azerbaijan witnessed a sharp increase as the country moved to block social media platforms starting September 27. “An increased number of Azerbaijanis are turning to Surfshark VPN, leading to an ongoing spike in sales. As a VPN service, Surfshark allows users to overcome government blockades. It doesn’t matter if the new restrictions are imposed via a relatively simple DNS-level block or a sophisticated deep packet inspection, a VPN can open access to blocked media.”
As users in Azerbaijan began increasingly reliant on VPN providers rumors of imposed fines against those who are accessing the blocked content began circulating online. However, the Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies said, this was not true and that the government body, cannot impose fines. There is also no such legislation in Azerbaijan on the use of VPNs. Instead, the ministry representative encouraged Azerbaijani users, to rely on government media, and stop looking for news on social networks.
September 29, as clashes on the front line continued on the third day, Internet access in Azerbaijan remained spotty. Users continued reporting difficulties accessing social media platforms. Access to government websites remained spotty. The Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies did not share any further updates on how much longer the situation will last.
September 28, according to the most recent reports from Azerbaijan, users continued to face difficulties accessing social media platforms unless using VPN services.
Government websites that were mostly inaccessible yesterday were restored.
The Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies (MCHT) has not made any further statements about the duration of currently imposed throttling.
Instead, MCHT did issue a warning to users of VPN services in the country with the caveat they were unsafe, collecting private user information, and also capable of infecting devices with malware. The Ministry failed to mention the amount of surveillance technology used by other government institutions against citizens in Azerbaijan.
Based on OONI Measurement results it was possible to confirm that the following applications were blocked in Azerbaijan:
According to measurements, the Facebook messenger app was reachable.
Similarly, according to measurements access to the Telegram app was available on some networks.
As tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan escalated on the front line on September 27, Internet users in Azerbaijan began reporting issues accessing the Internet, social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and others), and communication apps (WhatsApp, Telegram).
Yalnız sosial şəbəkələrə girişi məhdudlaşdırırlar, deyəsən. İnternetdə problem yoxdur çünki. Başqa saytlara girmək olur.
According to a global #KeepItOn campaign, “Public safety, national security, or stopping fake news are commonly used to justify shutdowns.” Looking at data collected as a result of the campaign there is a significant annual growth in the number of shutdowns reported across the world. Last year alone, 1706 days of internet access were disrupted by 213 internet shutdowns across 33 countries according to #KeepItOn campaign.
Internet disruptions of various forms and scale in Azerbaijan are not new. Since April, a leader of an opposition party has had his internet cut off. Sometimes they are reportedly caused as a result of technical incidents. In other cases, access to internet is intentionally slowed down especially around political events.
While some users online commented on internet disruptions as necessary measure to prevent spread of unconfirmed information, others argued the decision to simply throttle the connection was an easy solution especially when there is no way, the authorities can control social media platforms.
Azerbaijan Internet Watch continues to monitor developments on the ground.
On April 21, several cities and administrative districts across the country reported experiencing internet disruptions.
The disruptions were reported on DeltaTelecom one of the only two companies in Azerbaijan licensed to connect international internet traffic [the second one being AzerTelecom]. Delta Telecom is considered the backbone internet provider in Azerbaijan and handles most of the ISP traffic. It owns a data center and provides hosting services.
One earlier report claimed the disruptions were the result of problems in the internet traffic coming in from Russia. The nature of these problems was not identified. And became clear shortly after, that this was not indeed the cause for disruptions.
According to Osman Gunduz, the head of Azerbaijan Internet Forum, it was the damage to the fiber optic cables connecting Delta Telecom’s second main center and the backbone itself during street excavations. As a result, Delta Telecom’s second main center started experiencing connectivity issues. This resulted in several ISPs and large companies experiencing major internet connectivity disruptions.
The Ministry of Transportation, Communication, and High Technologies (MCHT) is yet to issue a statement. In an interview, with a local online news platform Gafgazinfo the spokesperson Gunel Gozalova said the problem was not the damage caused to existing underground cables but issues with the commercial provider bringing Internet traffic into the country. “As a result of the countrywide quarantine regime during COVID19, many companies shifted their work to an online regime. The same goes for the education system where classes are now conducted in an online format. As a result, the country’s broadband internet network is overloaded. And sometimes, the preferred device installed at people’s homes does not meet currently increased demands.”
The spokesperson assured the ministry is doing its best to meet the spike in demands, working with experts around the clock.
It seems the spokesperson missed the memo [and so did the main news agency APA] from Delta Telecom because according to this media platform, who spoke with the director of the main internet provider [Public Television Channel] Delta Telecom, the disruptions were caused by “cable outage” during maintenance excavation work around one of capital’s automatic telephone exchange [ATS] locations.
As of April 22, Internet users across the country including in the capital continued reporting of weak signal or on-going disruptions in connections.
This is not the first time, major disruptions have been reported across the country.
In November 2015, massive Internet outage caused by a fire at a landline of the major Internet provider “Delta Telecom” left the country disconnected for at least 6 hours. In August 2016, some users experienced problems establishing an internet connection for several hours as a result of problems with Delta-Telecom’s infrastructure or as a result of debts owed by smaller providers to Delta Telecom. In October 2017, the MTCHT announced slow internet traffic across 23 regions due to AzTelekom’s [second government-owned internet provider] maintenance work to improve connectivity. In early July 2018, the country experienced its worst blackout in decades after a fire broke out at the country’s largest power plant.
In addition to accidents, technical, and other maintenance-related disruptions, there are intentional restrictions reported during certain political occasions such as political rallies or international events. In 2016 during the country-wide referendum, Virtual Road documented how authorities generated artiﬁcial internet network congestion within Azerbaijan to prevent access to the websites of both RFE/RL’s Azerbaijan Service and the Voice of America’s Azerbaijani services.
During the Islamic Solidarity Games, there were reports of users having diﬃculties accessing and using Skype, Viber, and WhatsApp. Only after the games were over, the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and High Technologies issued a statement conﬁrming, “Temporary restrictions to telecom services (Skype, Viber, WhatsApp,etc.), [were] imposed in Azerbaijan as part of security measures during the 4th IslamicSolidarity Games.
Opposition activists say internet service sometimes slows down or stops working completely in the hours before rallies are set to begin. Similarly, residents in neighborhoods where rallies often take place, too have experienced connectivity issues for the duration of these events. In response to these disruptions, local ISPs argue that the connectivity issues are directly linked to the number and density of users gathered in one place during that specific time.
And last but not least, the quality of the internet in Azerbaijan lags behind even its closest neighbors. According to the annual Freedom on the Net report, in Azerbaijan, “the fixed broadband market lacks equality between operators. The absence of regulatory reform also inhibits the development of the sector. Osman Gunduz cites Azerbaijan’s underdeveloped infrastructure as a key obstacle toward attaining greater access and higher connection speeds. And in his most recent Facebook post, Gunduz wrote that the recent disruptions attest to existing problems despite the on-going effort invested in setting up stable information infrastructure in the country over the recent years.