Kazak State Tightens Grip on Social Media

Rights groups fear that a bill framed to safeguard children could limit free speech and intensify government control.

Kazak State Tightens Grip on Social Media

Rights groups fear that a bill framed to safeguard children could limit free speech and intensify government control.

In September Kazakhstan's parliament pushed a draft bill that would require foreign tech companies to register local branches or risk being blocked. Rights groups say that, if approved, it will hinder social media activities and further limit free speech in the country.
In September Kazakhstan's parliament pushed a draft bill that would require foreign tech companies to register local branches or risk being blocked. Rights groups say that, if approved, it will hinder social media activities and further limit free speech in the country. © CABAR

Instagram is Asel Zhanaidarova’s lifeline. The young mother-of-four blogs about parenting and earns about 10,000 tenge (23 US dollars) through advertising and targeting on the social media platform, which has over 11 million active accounts in Kazakstan out of a population of 19 million. But with the approval of a bill restricting digital content looming, she fears her family’s income will dry up.

“It is not much, but enough to live on,” she said. “If Instagram gets blocked, I will have to find night shifts because child allowances are meagre and food prices go up every day. Many families make their living on social media.” Her husband’s take-home pay as a taxi driver is not enough to support the family.

In mid-September, parliament’s lower chamber approved the first reading of a bill which broadly aims to regulate social media and messaging apps, with the stated purpose to safeguard children from cyberbullying.

If approved by the senate and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in its current form, the bill will require foreign tech companies, such as Facebook (recently renamed Meta), Twitter, Instagram, Telegram, Tik Tok and Whatsapp to register as local entities headed by Kazak citizens. They will be personally responsible for removing illegal content, such as posts authorities deem amount to cyberbullying, within 24 hours of being notified.

Civil society regards the bill a tool to further limit free speech and increase the state’s control over citizens. Over 10,000 people have signed an open petition which states that the proposed legislation contradicts the country’s “obligations in the field of human rights, part of which are digital rights,” and “would damage Kazakstan’s international reputation and undermine the country’s socio-political development”. Initiated by rights groups and media outlets, the petition adds that “the pretext of protecting the rights of the child is manipulation”.

“They certainly do not care about children,” said Diana Okremova, the head of Legal Media Centre Foundation and one of the petition’s signatories. “They care about the possibility for the state to interfere with freedom of speech, to legally breach citizens’s privacy. The cyberbullying problem cannot be solved this way. We should come up with a normal legal framework, use international practices, take a large package of measures.”

Hugh Williamson, director for Europe and Central Asia of the advocacy group Human Rights, told IWPR Central Asia’s CABAR.Asia that, across the region. “human rights movement has been enabled, given more power because of the power of sharing, influencing, organising through the internet”. He said that the bill is “extremely worrying because it sets a trend whereby these companies will be more under the influence of authorities, such as in Kazakstan”.

Supporters of the bill say that the accusation is groundless.

“The state can block any social media without this law,” Aidos Sarym, a member of the parliament’s lower house, told his fellow lawmakers. “The authorities have the leverage to block messengers without any laws or notices. We want to regulate this process as much as practical to avoid disorganisation.”

HIGH INTERNET PENETRATION, LIMITED RIGHTS

Kazakstan’s internet penetration is the highest in the Central Asian region. The 2021 Digital Report indicates that 81 per cent of the country’s population surf the web, while 63.5 per cent are social media users.

However, Freedom House’s 2021 Freedom on the Net report ranks Kazakstan “not free”, reporting that the government has tested technology to monitor users’ online activities, broadened laws to block online resources and threatened media outlets, including with denial-of-service attacks. The sites of the few independent media in the country, such as rus.azattyq.org, exclusive.kz, vlast.kz, are often blocked. Restrictions and disruption of social media and messaging apps intensify during key political events like the parliamentary vote in January 2021.

“Authorities fear social media, that’s a fact,” said Anara Tulenova, a social media manager. “Facebook… helped citizens to organise land protests in 2016. Since then, there is a silent war against Facebook. There is another way to fight cyberbullying. If they start blocking, citizens would all download VPNs.”

The idea that people will eventually find a way around restrictions is warranted – the government’s several attempts to block porn sites have failed and material can easily be accessed through basic search engines.

In addition, users think that the market is not large enough for tech giants to open local branches.

“I don’t think that they will open a representative office here,” said Tik Tok blogger Aleksei Longinov. “Most probably, they would be blocked. People will lose their profits. It may happen that users move to other countries permanently after the key social media outlets are blocked. Kazakstan will lose its citizens who are bloggers and influencers.”

State officials stress that the threat cyberbullying poses is real. Kemelbek Oishybayev, vice minister of information and public development, stated that in 2020 authorities detected nearly 70,000 cases of cyberbullying and sent about 1,800 requests to social media administrators and messaging apps to delete materials. In 2021, the reported cases rose to 140,000.

“Not all social media respond to our messages [to delete material],” Oishybayev told parliament’s lower chamber. “Up to 20, 30 per cent react. The purpose of the draft law is to shape an efficient legal basis…in the area of protection of children’s rights.”

Okremova said that issue was more complex and required a different approach.

“It is impossible to fight cyberbullying by simply blocking social media outlets as they are just a form of distribution. [Officials] are not trying to solve the problem of cyberbullying and attacks on children, but rather trying to erase the channel of distribution,” she explained.

On November 1, Kazak authorities announced they had reached an agreement with Facebook to access the platform’s internal content-reporting system (CRS) that will allow the government to remove content it deems to be harmful. The following day, the tech giant said that the government had issued the statement independently. Meta spokesman Ben McConaghy told Reuters that Facebook had dedicated online channels for governments to report content that they believe violated local law and that Kazakstan followed the same process.

The bill, likely to be approved before the end of the year, further calls into question the opening up of society that Tokayev promised upon his appointment in 2019, which rights groups say has failed to materialise.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

Support our journalists