Azerbaijan among 29 countries where internet shutdowns documented

On March 1, Access Now released the #KeepItOn report that documents incidents of internet shutdowns globally for the year 2020. 

According to the findings of the report:

  • there were 155 Internet shutdowns documented across 29 countries;
  • there were 28 complete internet blackouts; 
  • out of the 155 internet shutdowns, six incidents were bandwidth throttling;
  • there were at least 26 attempts to deny people access to social media and communication platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Telegram, and other platforms;
  • new countries that have never shut down the internet before, like Tanzania, Cuba, and others, joined the internet shutdown shame list;

This year, Azerbaijan was also included among countries experiencing internet shutdowns.

According to the #KeepItOn FAQ,

“an internet shutdown is ‘an intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information.’ An internet shutdown happens when someone — usually a government — intentionally disrupts the internet or mobile apps to control what people say or do.”

In this context, the report notes that one trend in 2020 was how governments deployed internet shutdowns “in response to ongoing violence — particularly in active conflict zones.” But this decision comes at a great cost. “Amid conflict, shutdowns can hide human rights violations or war crimes, thwart journalism, and put people’s lives in danger.” In Azerbaijan during the armed conflict with Armenia, the government of Azerbaijan announced it would disrupt internet access across the country. This decision, prevented numerous online news platforms, from publishing news, and their readers, from accessing news. The authorities encouraged the Azerbaijani people to only use and rely on government media platforms, and updates from the government institutions. None of which, experienced the same difficulties and challenges with access as did the normal users. 

Although the government in Azerbaijan did not ban the use of VPNs which became the top most downloaded apps during the war, it did encourage users not to rely on virtual private networks. Some of the companies refused to offer their services to customers using VPNs on their devices. When confronted, they refuted the claims this was the case. 

The new report also mentioned the role tech companies play in internet shutdowns globally, chief among them Sandvine and Allot. Azerbaijan has used the technology by both companies on different occasions and for different purposes. During the 44-day war, Sandine worked with Delta Telecom – Azerbaijan’s backbone internet provider, which is owned by the government to block access to live stream videos from YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. 

Given Azerbaijan has purchased both technologies, the chances of both of them being deployed during the most recent internet shutdown are high.  

*Sandvine provides Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment that enabled shutdowns and website blocking. 

*Allot‘s DPI equipment can track applications in use, what is done while using these apps, the locations of users, the video content viewed, and contacts. It can also shut down entire networks, websites, services, slow down internet traffic so that people cannot transmit videos or photos, or block traffic altogether.

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.

spotted: sandvine back at it, this time, in Azerbaijan

In August, when people in Belarus took the streets across the country in protest of election results where incumbent President Lukashenka secured yet another victory in a contested presidential election, authorities deliberately cut the internet. Quickly, experts concluded DPI technology may be in use. By the end of August, it was reported that this DPI technology was produced by the Canadian company Sandvine and supplied to Belarus as part of a $2.5million contract with the Russian technology supplies Jet Infosystems.

DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) is known as digital eavesdropping that allows information extraction. More broadly as explained here, DPI “is a method of monitoring and filtering internet traffic through inspecting the contents of each packet that is transmitted through an inspection point, allowing for filtering out malware and unwanted traffic, but also real-time monitoring of communications, as well as the implementation of targeted blockings and shutdowns.” 

Canadian company Sandvine is owned by American private equity firm Francisco Partners.

 

Sandvine technology has been detected in many countries across the world, including in Ethiopia, Iran, as well as Turkey, and Syria as previously reported. One other country where Sandvine technology was reportedly deployed is Azerbaijan

In Azerbaijan, the DPI deployments have been used since March 2017. This was reported in January 2019, when VirtualRoad, the secure hosting project of the Qurium – Media Foundation published a report documenting fresh attacks against Azerbaijan’s oldest opposition newspaper Azadliq’s website (azadliq.info). The report concluded: “After ten months trying to keep azadliq.info online inside Azerbaijan using our Bifrost service and bypassing multi-million dollar DPI deployments, this is one more sign of to what extent a government is committed to information control”.  

Another report released in April 2018 showed evidence of the government of Azerbaijan using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) since March 2017. The report also found out that this specialized security equipment was purchased at a price tag of 3 million USD from an Israeli security company Allot Communications.

Now, according to this story reported by Bloomberg, Sandvine worked with Delta Telecom – Azerbaijan’s main internet provider and owned by the government to install a system to block live stream videos from YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. “The social media blackout came last week after deadly clashes with Armenia. As a result, people in Azerbaijan couldn’t reach websites including Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, Twitter, Zoom, and Skype, according to internet monitoring organization Netblocks,” wrote Bloomberg. 

Azerbaijan Internet Watch has been monitoring the situation on the ground since September 27, the day when clashes began. Together with OONI, Azerbaijan Internet Watch reported that access to several social media applications and websites was blocked. 

Access to the Internet remains throttled in Azerbaijan as of writing this post. Many of the social media applications remain accessible only through a VPN provider. As a result, authorities have resorted to other means in order to prevent users from using VPN services. From banks to ISPs encouraging users not to use VPN services, this account on Facebook made a list of VPNs alleging they were of Armenian origin in order to discourage users.