Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Will Azerbaijan's Big Brother Plan Work for Web?

Government wants better surveillance, but doing it through bureacracy suggests it’s out of touch with the technology.
By Durna Safarli
  • (Photo: Dina Tokbaeva)
    (Photo: Dina Tokbaeva)

Azerbaijani leaders are at the planning stage of introducing tighter internet surveillance to allow them to identify who is using the web, in particular social media.

Plans for new regulations were flagged up by Ramiz Mehdiyev, head of President Ilham Aliyev’s office, at an August 29 meeting with media chiefs.

Mehdiyev pointed to the upsurge of tensions on the border with Armenia and around Nagorny Karabakh in the previous few weeks. This, he said, had highlighted the need to crack down on “unprofessional and illegal” reporting.

“Any assault or attempted assault on Azerbaijan’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity or constitutional system, whatever shape or form it takes, and including anything that is a threat to information security and the national interest, must be dealt with by the appropriate legal action,” he said. “I warn you that such action will continue to be taken.”

Explaining the options, Siyavush Novruzov, a member of the parliamentary committee on defence and security from the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan party, focused on comments that were offensive rather than security threats.

“There is so much insulting and abusive language on websites today. And all of it is written under pseudonyms,” he said. “It’s a breach of ethics towards other users.”

The solution, Novruzov, said, was to require users to register on social media and other websites under their real names.

He said that in order to post comments, users would have to enter the serial number of their ID document. He did not say how this work or how it would be checked, but claimed this method was already in use in some foreign countries.

Lawyer Jabir Aliyev told IWPR that restrictions of this kind went against the principles of freedom expression.

“Free speech is a way of revealing the truth, and if that happens through argument or a clash of opinions, then deliberately restricting by setting conditions will undoubtedly have a negative effect on the diversity of opinions and on getting at the truth…. We will also harm political activity,” he said. “The possibility of expressing one’s opinion anonymously is an inseparable part of free speech.”

A number of website administrators and bloggers in Azerbaijan are in jail for their activities, including Abdul Abilov, who ran a website called “Let’s Say Stop to Toadies”, Omar Mammadli, who created a satirical site called “Snippets from Azerbaijani TV, Faraj Karimov, whose site was called “Resign”, and many more like Jamil Hasanli, Elsever Mursalli, Rashad Ramazanov, Orkhan Eyyubzade, Ilkin Rustamzade, and Mammad Azizov.

Web users point out that it is impractical for governments to try to mould global technologies to their own needs. Social media sites set their own rules for their users, and are unlikely to modify them to suit the separate arrangements the Azerbaijani government wants.

“It’s impossible to set up one’s own laws against the laws of websites. Facebook isn’t just used in Azerbaijan. Online newspapers have moderators for their comments system. They have their own laws,” said Javid Aga, who is active on many different social media platforms. “I think that when Siyavush Novruzov speaks of internet filtering and the experience of other countries, he’s thinking of places like China, North Korea, Iran and Turkey. The governments in those countries have total control over the individual’s private life in the virtual sphere. There’s no respect for confidentiality.”

Aliyev said state attempts to regulate the web were a form of censorship, and were unlikely to work anyway.

“People will always violate bans,” he said, adding that the only realistic method was to create “a complete intranet” within the country concerned.

“Not even China has managed to do that, because the internet doesn’t just consist of Facebook and Twitter – the entire banking system and business depends on it,” Aliyev continued. “To achieve this kind of regulation, you have to be prepared to entirely cut yourself off from the world.”

Durna Safarli is a freelance journalist in Azerbaijan.  

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