On January 4, 2022, amid unprecedented unrest in Kazakhstan, the internet stopped working. In an effort to control the spiraling chaos, the Kazakh government had pulled the virtual plug. The week-long internet stoppage cost Kazakhstan’s economy as much as $410.7 million; amid the blackout and the protest more than 200 people were killed.
In August 2023, a coalition of Kazakh and foreign human rights organizations and experts launched a petition urging Astana to cancel legislation that allows the government to block or slow access to the internet. The coalition’s website, Shutdown.kz, lists its supporters as including MediaNet International Journalism Center, Legal Media Center, Civil Expertise, Erkindik Kanaty, Eurasian Digital Foundation, Digital Paradigm, and Internet Freedom Kazakhstan.
During Qandy Qantar – a Kazak phrase meaning “Bloody January” – the internet blockage plunged Kazakh citizens into ignorance. With the internet and social media networks down, many Kazakhs had little access to information about what was happening on the streets of most major cities in the country, but also about what the government’s instructions were. The curious ventured out; some of them were killed.
It was on January 5, after the internet went down, that Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev declared a state of emergency and called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to dispatch forces. Two days later he reportedly authorized the use of lethal force, ordering security services to “shoot to kill without warning.”
Aigerim Tleuzhanova, an activist sentenced this summer to four years in prison based on the accusation that she took part in a plot to seize Almaty airport during the unrest, told Eurasianet that she had gone to the airport “to find out whether the information about the arrival of Russian troops was reliable, and, if there were any provocations, to somehow try to prevent trouble… I now understand that this was unrealistic. I was there for about half an hour and then left.”
Urging Kazakhstan’s authorities “to guarantee citizens access to uninterrupted and high-quality internet” and exclude the “possibility of shutdowns” from legislation, Shutdown.kz writes of Qanday Qantar that “it is obvious that many victims in those days died precisely because of the lack of access to the internet, when people, having no information, went to the city and were shot dead.”
Shutdown.kz notes that governments often argue that internet shutdowns are a useful tool to stop the spread of misinformation. As a rebuttal to that argument, the coalition highlights the case of Vikram Ruzakhunov. Ruzakhunov, a Kyrgyz jazz musician, was caught in Kazakhstan amid the unrest and paraded by Kazakh authorities as a paid terrorist. Kyrgyz social media users, and jazz fans, identified Ruzakhunov and successfully lobbied for his release – although not before he was tortured.
Ruzakhunov, the coalition writes in its petition, “has become a living argument that centralized state media instead of social networks and instant messengers is a much greater risk of misinforming the population.”
In the petition, Shutdown.kz demands that “the authorities guarantee uninterrupted and secure access to the internet for all residents of the country… We call on the authorities to uphold their obligations to protect human rights in the digital environment and not resort to such harmful practices.” Specifically, they ask that Kazakhstan’s legislation be brought into line with international standards, such as excluding from Article 15 of the Law on State of Emergency the ability of the government to impose restrictions on the internet.
As highlighted by Baurzhan Rakhmetov and Brandon Valeriano in an article in February 2022 for the Council on Foreign Relations, over the years, Kazakh legislation has expanded the ability of the state to cut off communications services. This includes a 2012 law on national security, which enables the government to disrupt communications channels during anti-terrorist operations; 2014 amendments to the 2004 communications law that allow the Prosecutor General’s Office to shut down the internet without a court decision; and 2016 amendments to the communications law that added the National Security Committee to the list of government actors that can restrict internet access and other communication services.
As Freedom House noted in its 2022 Freedom of the Net report, according to a 2018 decree the Kazakh “Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and the National Security Committee (NSC) have priority access to telecommunications networks as well as the right to suspend those networks in an emergency, or the risk thereof.”
Shutdown.kz also highlights the practice of “whitelisting” as an inadequate compromise, calling it a “vicious practice.” In January 2023, Kazakh Minister of Digital Development Bagdat Musin introduced a “whitelist” – officially the Register of Static Addresses of Data Transmission Networks (RSASPD) – that will contain a list of websites to which access should not be restricted during an internet stoppage. In order to get on the list a site has to register, providing a host of information to the government. Shutdown.kz points out that such a process is highly corruptible, with the government able to deny registration.
“Shutdowns destroy the country’s economy, causing a lot of losses and inconvenience to both citizens and businesses,” Shutdown.kz writes. “Internet shutdowns essentially undermine public confidence in government decisions, demonstrating the weakness of information policy. The internet should be used to inform citizens, especially in difficult situations.”