Kazakh President Kassym-Jomat Tokayev signed into law a controversial bill that will require foreign social media companies to set up local offices and register in Kazakhstan in order to operate. The bill, cast as amendments to the country’s law on protecting the rights of children, has been heralded by the Kazakh government as an effective measure to combat cyberbullying.
Critics, however, note that the law’s provisions may simply serve as an additional avenue for Nur-Sultan to restrict speech.
The law requires foreign internet platforms, including social networks and messaging services, to register local offices headed by a Kazakh national to liaise with the government. Companies which have a monthly user base of more than 100,000 have six months to comply with the new law. The companies are also obliged to respond to orders from the state to delete information deemed “cyberbullying in relation to a child” within 24 hours. The law attempts to define cyberbullying, identifying “actions of a humiliating nature, harassment and (or) intimidation” including efforts aimed at “coercion.”
In September 2021, as the draft law was making its way through the Kazakh parliament Adil Jalilov, the head of the Kazakh-based MediaNet journalism center, criticized the law on Facebook, writing, “What children are these rules going to protect? Perhaps only those of MPs and civil servants – from investigations by journalists and bloggers.”
The law has echoes of Russia’s 2013 “gay propaganda law” which sought to “protect” children from exposure to homosexuality, or content that depicted homosexuality as normal. In that case, the law is much more explicit in its aims, but it’s illustrative of the ways a law positioned as “protecting” children can serve to harm them instead. As Human Rights Watch noted in a 2018 report, “The law has been used to shut down websites that provide valuable information and services to teens across Russia and to bar LGBT support groups from working with youth.”
Access Now, a digital rights organization, argued in November 2021 that Kazakhstan’s then-draft law is open for abuse, threatens the capacity of platforms to push back, does not ensure sufficient due process, and fits into a pattern of data localization laws across the world, which have led to the kind of censorship and abuse critics warn of.
While we don’t yet know how the implementation of the law will go, it’s worthwhile looking at what kind of content Kazakh authorities have viewed as problematic in the past.
According to Google, the Kazakh government has made just 457 removal requests since 2011. In the period from January to June 2021, Kazakhstan made 84 such requests, its most in a single six-month period on record. Most of the requests in that period were aimed at YouTube content (81 of 84), a pattern that holds true for previous periods. Most of the removal requests in that January-June 2021 period were made by the Information and Communications Authority (79) and just four by police; only one request was issued by the relevant data Protection Authority.
Google evaluates each request and labels it with a “reason” — importantly, this is Google’s determination, not the Kazakh government’s. In the January-June 2021 period, 34 requests were labeled by Google as “government criticism” and 43 as “national security.” Only three requests in that period were labeled “hate speech.” Of all the items named for removal (a larger number than the specific removal requests because a removal request can pertain to multiple items), Google took no action in 99.3 percent of cases in the January-June 2021 period.
In each reporting period, Google highlights removal requests it deems “of public interest.” In the January-June 2021 period it highlight a request by the Kazakh government to “to block a Google Site on extremist grounds.” According to Google, the unnamed site “advocated voting for candidates outside of the ruling regime; there was also information on how to report election fraud.” As such, Google denied the request.
These requests suggest the kinds of content Kazakh authorities truly find problematic.
Facebook (now Meta) also provides information on government requests for data, but Kazakhstan has not made many such requests. No requests were made in the January-June 2021 period, or the previous period. In the January-June 2020 period two requests were made regarding seven accounts; Facebook produced no data in response to those requests.
The new law paves the way for easier access by Kazakh authorities to influence the decisions of social media networks and other online platforms via locally based staff who would be easier to pressure in person to make decisions in the government’s favor, regardless of the content in question. That is, if the platforms comply with the law in the first place.
Again, we can look to Russia as an example of what may come next. In November 2020 Facebook paid a 4 million ruble ($53,000) fine to the Russian government after declining to adhere to a law mandating that Russian data be stored in local servers. Apple and Google had previously complied with the law, but Facebook and Twitter challenged it and were fined. The following year, in December 2021, a Moscow court ordered Twitter, Meta, and TikTok to pay additional fines for refusing to delete content. In light of the Russian war in Ukraine, new fines have been levied on Twitter for refusing to take down content, including content “offending Russia.”
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Kazakhstan’s authorities have other methods of shutting down social media, including pulling the plug on the internet entirely, as they did in early January 2022. That, of course, is a heavy-handed tactic. Pawning off censorship on social media companies themselves is much more subtle.