Kazakhstan, of 65 countries assessed in Freedom House’s latest Freedom of the Net report, logged one of the largest declines in the past year. At a time of great potential change, triggered by the surprise resignation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev in March 2019, the country’s leadership has offered little but continuity in both policy terms and in its response to dissent.
Of the three Central Asian states covered by the report, only Kyrgyzstan reaches the level of “partly free” when it comes to internet freedoms, according to Freedom House. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan remain firmly in the “not free” tier.
The Freedom of the Net report looks at three key categories, aspects of internet freedom: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violation of user rights. Each aspect is further broken down into questions and subquestions that are assigned point values. Summed up, each country’s final score falls between 0 (least free) and 100 (most free).
The root of Kazakhstan’s decline in the report — from a score of 38 in 2018 to 32 in 2019 — lies in the government’s response to protests and expressions of dissent following the resignation of Nazarbayev and the election of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
From the report:
To suppress protests and other expressions of dissent, the government disrupted mobile internet connections, throttled access to social media, and temporarily blocked independent news websites. Activists, journalists, and ordinary internet users faced detention and in some cases prosecution for their online activity.
Uzbekistan — whose score technically improved, from 25 in 2018 to 26 in 2019 — “saw a slight opening of the space for free expression online,” according to the report. While its scores remain low and online expression tightly controlled, there have been some efforts at liberalization. Importantly, a bevvy of websites that have long been unofficially blocked have been unblocked. And while some topics — for example forced labor in the cotton industry — are receiving greater and more open coverage in Uzbek media, other subjects remain taboo or subject to pressure if raised.
In overly simplistic terms, Uzbekistan’s trajectory is positive while Kazakhstan’s is negative. Some of this is, arguably, just optics. Uzbekistan’s current state narrative is one of reform and opening. There are successes to laud, and areas of stalled or slow progress can still reasonably be framed as areas for further and future work. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has offered a theme of “continuity.” When Nazarbayev resigned in March, he said the “new generation of leaders” will “continue the reforms that are underway in the country.”
In looking at the scores for individual questions, it’s clear that Kazakhstan’s internet environment is more developed.
For example, let’s examine question A2: “Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons?”
In Uzbekistan, according to the government, average monthly income in July 2018 was about $190. The average monthly cost of a fixed-line broadband connection in 2018 was $21.26. One GB of mobile data cost $3.27 on average in Uzbekistan, according to the report.
In Kazakhstan, as of December 2018, the average monthly salary was $470. Per the report, an unlimited fixed-line broadband subscription in 2019 had a starting cost of $9.40. Or mobile, 8 to 10 GB of prepaid traffic cost $4.80 to $5.10.
In this area, Kazakhstan’s internet is more freely available because it is more affordable than the internet in Uzbekistan.
But access is not everything; more developed may also mean more controllable. In the “limits on content” category, Kazakhstan beat Uzbekistan overall by only one point — the two states are closer in how they limit user access to content than one might otherwise assume. Self-censorship, or the voluntary avoiding of certain topics by individuals and media outlets, is common and platforms used to organize are subject to state-imposed restrictions at certain times.
Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have much ground to cover to reach a truly “free” internet space. Some areas for improvement are technical, economic, and regulatory; others are embedded in a necessary evolution in government culture to accept, or even welcome, criticism online and the use of the internet to spread information and organize.
Herein lies the larger risk underlined by Freedom House’s overall report focused on social media. “What was once a liberating technology has become a conduit for surveillance and electoral manipulation,” the report’s tag-line reads. While the internet serves as a critical tool for civil societies, it can also be used by the powerful to affect desired outcomes. The manipulation of online conversations can have serious real-world impacts, whether in elections or lighting rumors that push people to the streets.