Azeri Internet Blues

Azerbaijan’s web users claim censorship and poor quality of service.

Azeri Internet Blues

Azerbaijan’s web users claim censorship and poor quality of service.

Web users in Azerbaijan are increasingly irritated with the monopoly on internet provision in the country, saying the international gateway provider Delta Telecom is slow, expensive and prone to censorship.



Delta Telecom denied there was any political dimension to the problems faced by opposition-minded websites, but bloggers pointed to a series of sites critical of the government that have been closed down.



The whole of Azerbaijan’s internet – except for that of a few multinational companies and embassies – is controlled by Delta, whose service is then sold on by providers at a price far higher than in neighbouring countries.



“The high prices for the internet, and its poor quality means the country’s youth cannot fully exploit the internet’s possibilities, which are being used by their contemporaries in Europe. Very few people here can exchange video and audio files,” said Ali Novruzov, a popular blogger on social and political issues, who regularly criticises the state-run media for failing to report the news accurately.



He has kept lists of opposition websites that have been blocked, and said Delta’s monopoly status meant the government found it very easy to halt the work of sites it does not like. In early 2007, for example, when energy prices were sharply raised, a site (www.susmayaq.biz) allowing web users to send a protest letter to the president was closed.



Web users in Azerbaijan can still not use the popular site www.tinsohbeti.com, which contains satirical articles, photographs, videos and more. During the 2008 presidential elections, access to another political site was blocked, and web users were barred from reading about the candidacy of an invented “man of the people” candidate called Shiraslan on www.shiraslan.info.



Delta Telecom denied having ever closed sites for political reasons.



“I have worked in the company for many years already, and all documents pass through my hands. And for all this time such an instruction has never appeared,” said Leyla Rahimova, chief accountant at the company.



She also said the company was working on bringing the price down.



“This year the company has once more halved the cost of the internet for providers… the company does not work with end users, and cannot dictate prices to them,” she said.



But Delta would have to lower prices significantly further to catch up with neighbouring Georgia. Azerbaijan’s users pay a minimum of 75 US dollars for a one megabyte a second connection, while Georgians pay as little as eight dollars. Even in Moscow, which has famously high prices for most things, the cost is just 40 dollars.



Web analysts, meanwhile, say Delta’s monopoly status harms the development of internet-based businesses in Azerbaijan, and users are often left intensely frustrated by the unreliable nature of the service.



“At first, I used internet from one company, but then I had to change because of the bad quality of the internet,” said Dmitry Zakharov, an engineer. “I bought the speed of 512 kilobytes a second from the provider, but when I downloaded a large file, the speed fell. Then I changed provider, but even then the speed did not turn out to be what I paid for, and there were regular breaks in the service. Since then I have changed provider several times, and many of them have problems, leaving aside the fact that the internet here is very expensive.”



Azeris were first able to access the internet in 1993, and some 9,000 Azerbaijan-based websites are registered in the country, while 30 providers are operating services. Political analysts say Delta’s monopoly position does not only harm individual web users, but also the business climate in the whole country.



“A monopoly… is harmful for the country’s economy, and an internet monopoly in particular removes the possibility of free competition, and therefore lowers the quality of services,” said Ilgar Mammadov, an independent analyst.



“Basically, a monopoly on internet services harms the whole economy and therefore the internet market, like the market for oil and gas, must be diversified.”



Government officials were not available to comment, but Osman Gyunduz, direct of the Internet Forum of Azerbaijan, said his organisation had repeatedly tried to persuade the government of the need to open up the market.



“This year we even address an appeal to the president of Azerbaijan with a request to change the policy towards regulating the internet in accordance with the practise in developed countries… Today the communications and information technologies ministry plays a very large regulatory role on the internet market. The ministry must share this role with an organisation not under state control,” he said.



Maharram Zeynalov is a freelance journalist in Baku.
Georgia, Azerbaijan
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