1 Nov 2013
Internet freedom in Armenia and Azerbaijan: comparative review
“Internet freedom” can be a controversial term, often subject to interpretation and used to serve various agendas. This is especially true for countries in conflict and competition. Azerbaijan and Armenia for more than two decades have been trying to prove to the global community “who is better”, “more developed” and “more civilized”. The two countries have received different ratings on their Internet freedom, among other democracy and governance indices, which has further added to the contention between the nations.
As neighbors and parties to a war, Armenia and Azerbaijan strive to dominate in political, economic, cultural, sports and, certainly, military arenas. Development of information communication technologies (ICT) and, as a result, expanding Internet penetration has turned into another field of competition. And, in the meantime, it has a potential for peace-building and cooperation, which are very limited in the “offline” world. This development, however, has created new challenges for the existing ruling elite in terms of growing cyber social and political activism and freedom of expression through the Internet, forcing the governments to respond. The recent waves of “social network revolutions” in the Middle East and some other examples of collective social action and fight for democracy facilitated by online media has also made post-Soviet transition states re-examine Internet penetration and its far-reaching consequences.
This paper reviews the ways the respective governments deal with the Internet and attempts to compare the extent of Internet freedom as a result based on various international reports and indices. The paper views Internet freedom as a combination of indicators like access to the network, as government restriction of the content and persecution of Internet use and activism, as well as government control over Internet use and privacy.
Comparative rankings on Internet access and usage
Freedom on the Net 2013 by Freedom House identifies key trends in Internet freedom in 60 countries and evaluates them based on barriers to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. According to this report Armenia is rated as Free, but Azerbaijan is rated as Partly Free with the following scores (Freedom House 2013):
|FreedomOn The NetStatus||Freedom OnThe NetTotal0-100 Points||A Subtotal:Obstacles ToAccess0-25 Points||B Subtotal:Limits OnContent0-35 Points||C Subtotal:Violations OfUser Rights0-40 Points|
Some statistical data on Internet penetration would be quite useful too, since it is the most important indicator of the extent of the public access to Internet.. However, some controversies here can be observed. According to the data by International Telecommunications Union (ITU) on percentage of individuals using the Internet, Azerbaijan has slightly over 50%, while Armenia is almost 40% (ITU 2012). Both countries have demonstrated very good growth dynamics during the last five years. According to another relevant ITU indicator – fixed (wired)-broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants for the last five years, Azerbaijan again has a higher percentage – 14%, which is twice as much as in Armenia (ITU 2013). The data from the 2012 Caucasus Barometer by the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC), however, gives a different picture with 53% of the population as Internet users in Armenia and only 26% in Azerbaijan. Such significant discrepancy obscures the picture of how many people actually have access in both countries. However, one consistent indicator is that the numbers have been growing year after year and each year more and more people in Armenia and Azerbaijan are becoming Internet users.
Penetration of social networks can also be a sound indicator of Internet freedom. The more freedom of Internet the country has the more of its “online” population would be able to use social networks. Moreover, given the world experience of Internet oppression, social networks are often targets for restriction and ban by the unfriendly governments.
Quick glance at the World Economic Forum’s Use of virtual social networks indicator, which is calculated based on the survey among business leaders, allows us to see Azerbaijan (33rd rank) is quite ahead of Armenia (102) (WEF 2013). The latest country statistics by Quintly (May 2013) on use of Facebook reveal almost similar levels of penetration in Armenia and Azerbaijan as demonstrated in the Table below:
|Activity (users)||Penetration, %, pop.||Male / Female, %|
|Armenia||440,000||14.82||47.8 / 52.2|
|Azerbaijan||1080000||13.01||64.8 / 35.2|
According to socialbakers.com Armenia during the period of July 2012 – May 2013, had higher penetration growth of 58% compared to 38% in Azerbaijan (Social Bakers 2013).
It is worth also looking at the ICT Price Basket (IPB) developed by ITU as a unique global benchmarking tool that reflects the cost and affordability of fixed-telephone, mobile-cellular and fixed-broadband services. It is calculated as an average monthly value of fixed-telephone, mobile-cellular and fixed-broadband services to the national average monthly GNI ratio. According to this indicator, in Azerbaijan on average the share of Internet costs is lower as seen from the table below (ITU 2012):
|Global rating of 161 countries||ICT price basket ratio|
The lower share of Internet costs implies relatively lower prices in Azerbaijan, where it is more cost-efficient to use Internet. According to the same sources, both countries have significantly reduced their prices during last few years (ITU 2012).
Comparative record on Internet-related policies
The governments in both countries have thrived a lot to develop the field of ICT appreciating its importance. Azerbaijan, at first, lagging significantly behind due to relatively more severe internal political and economic problems has recently caught up with Armenia as a result of its growing oil revenues. The policy shift in Azerbaijan also coincides with the change in the leadership of the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology in 2003. The new leadership has taken more active stance and initiated and intensified significant programs aimed at expanding Internet penetration. Since then the Azerbaijani government – following Armenia’s suit – has also declared ICT field as one of its development priorities. The newly adopted “Azerbaijan 2020: Future look” development concept also names it as one of the priority fields for the non-oil sector development based economic progress up until 2020.
Armenia, in its turn, was one of the first of the former Soviet countries to privatize its telecommunications industry. This, however, resulted in the stronger and more competitive Russian capital gaining a significant presence in Armenia’s Internet market now (ONI 2010). Local capital and state enterprises (e.g. OJSV Azerkosmos, Azerpost, Bakinternet, and so on), on the other hand, dominate Azerbaijan’s ICT sector.
Promoting Internet penetration has been a key policy dimension in Azerbaijan. The government is also increasing its own online presence. Both governments have been implementing various state programs to foster computerization and “Internetization” of their countries. The difference is that Armenia started this process much earlier and had private support (Russian capital, Diaspora-based investments), while Azerbaijan was late in the process but as a result of its oil revenues, it had much more resources later on to support its ICT development.
Access without limitations is the most important indicator for Internet freedom. In order to restrict such access, governments can block specified IP addresses, filter the content or block an access to any website with prohibited key words, and redirect a domain name. So let us compare two countries in terms of these measures.
In Azerbaijan and Armenia the legislation does not explicitly allow for Internet surveillance. Although ISPs and companies providing Web hosting services do not monitor the content of transmitted and stored content, ISPs are obliged to block access to particular content if requested to do so by law enforcement agencies. For example, during Armenia’s 2008 elections the government imposed direct censorship of Internet and media content (ONI 2008). There have not been official reports of such direct censorship in Azerbaijan during the last decade. However, according to the Freedom on the Net 2013 report domestic users reported access problems for oppositional content on websites such as Radio Azadliq, the Azerbaijan service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) (Freedom House 2013).
In both countries citizens have the constitutional right to privacy in all communications conducted through technical means. Surveillance can occur with an appropriate court warrant. Moreover several allegations on interception of mobile phones, landline phones, and e-mails have been reported (ONI 2012, Kendzior 2012). For example, according to some unofficial sources, it is believed that in Azerbaijan internet users were intercepted by Security Services on the regular basis, but there is no factual evidence available to support this claim.
The test by Open Internet Initiative conducted in many countries for determining whether the states use their policies and tools to filter, and monitor the information, detected that both countries authorities practice filtering and blocking. During filtering test, ONI detected media services, email services, search engines filtered in Armenia and some selected web-sites with political and military content filtered in Azerbaijan (ONI 2012). Moreover, Armenia was classified by ONI as “engaging in “substantial” or “pervasive” filtering of one or more content category”, with Azerbaijan getting less strict epithet of “selective” filtering (ibid.).
It is quite evident also that Azerbaijani government has at the moment much more resources to control the Internet due to bigger budgets made possible with oil-gas revenues. However, this fact does not prevent the Armenian government from still remaining “competitive” in this regard, hitting the top lists of actual Internet filtering countries. Thus the resources available are not the major factor, rather than a perceived need and desire of governments in underdeveloped democratic environments to “take care” of possible threats coming from Internet at any cost.
In May 2013, Azerbaijan introduced criminal persecution for defamation on Internet, which was condemned by the international community, including the European Union and European Commission (Fineko 2013). This amendment, if widely and strictly applied, may have serious negative implications for development of independent blogging culture, social networking and anti-government criticism in Internet, which has remained a safe haven for all kind of opposition activists. In this context, the legislation on Internet in Armenia has been more liberal with no formal restrictions of this kind.
Internet has also brought about another form of activism – blogging. Due to limited opportunity spaces for social-political activism offline, opposition uses blogs and social media for self-expression. This in turn has resulted in offline persecutions for online activism for the most active bloggers. This has been the case for numerous political bloggers in Azerbaijan during recent years (Freedom House 2013). A few cases can be reported from Armenia too (Global Voices 2010). The charges have been always unrelated to their blogging activism, but having rather “offline” crime elements (hooliganism, weapons, drugs, etc.)
The picture of Internet freedom even in its very basic understanding is very complicated. It is hard to say in which country in question – Armenia or Azerbaijan, there is more Internet freedom. Often criticized for being restrictive towards Internet Azerbaijan is at the same time paradoxically the evident leader in the region in terms of developing infrastructure and enabling more Internet penetration as a result. The questions is why would “anti-Internet” government do its best to provide for more publicly accessible Internet? It may seem that being a resource-rich, energy exporting economy ruled in a centralized manner Azerbaijan brings more negative attention for the attitudes and things many other governments in the region, including one in Armenia, share and actually do.
In both countries virtual social and political activism is much stronger than in the real life. Internet space enjoys more opportunity spaces for such activism. More Internet activism has a huge and still unutilized potential for public diplomacy and expansion of various online peace-building initiatives that won’t be possible offline otherwise.
Armenia imposes Internet censorship as unrest breaks out following disputed Presidential elections, Open Net Initiative, March 2008, https://opennet.net/blog/2008/03/armenia-imposes-internet-censorship-unrest-breaks-out-following-disputed-presidential-e Accessed in September 2013
Armenia: Journalist arrested in Liberty Square. Global Voices June 2010 http://globalvoicesonline.org/2010/06/02/armenia-journalist-arrested/ Accessed in October 2013
European Commission expresses disappointment with criminalization of slander and insult on Internet Fineko information agency: http://abc.az/eng/news/74103.html Accessed September 2013
Freedom on the Net 2013, Freedom House: http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2013, Accessed October 2013
Global Internet filtering in 2012 at a glance, Open Net Initiative, April 2012, https://opennet.net/blog/2012/04/global-internet-filtering-2012-glance Accessed in September 2013
Global Information Technology Report 2013, World Economic Forum http://www.weforum.org/reports/global-information-technology-report-2013 Accessed in May 2013
ITU Yearbook of Statistics 2012, Geneve, Switzerland 2012
Kendzior, Sarah (2012) An internet conference in a surveillance state . November 2012
http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/11/201211139579941937.html Accessed in January 2013
Quintly 2013, http://www.quintly.com/facebook-country-statistics/ Accessed in July 2013
Social Bakers 2013: http://www.socialbakers.com/facebook-statistics/ Accessed in July 20