country-wide internet disruptions reported in Azerbaijan [updated]

[UPDATE] November 12, access to the Internet was finally restored across the country in Azerbaijan. 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Translation: 

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

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


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


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

Government websites that were mostly inaccessible yesterday were restored.

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

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

***

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

According to measurements, the Facebook messenger app was reachable

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


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

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

Issues accessing the internet began already a day before.

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

Posted by Hebib Müntezir on Saturday, September 26, 2020

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

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

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

Ministry of Transportation, Communication and High Technologies Screenshot

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

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

— Cavid ⛧ (@cavidaga) September 27, 2020

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

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

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

Azerbaijan Internet Watch continues to monitor developments on the ground.

internet is reportedly down across Azerbaijan

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.