Kazakhstan internet blockage (2022)

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Date The protests triggered by a double rise in fuel prices began on January 2, 2022, followed by localised and internet shutdowns in places where the unrests appeared. [1] [2]On January 5, as the unrest grew into overall discontentment at the government, forcing it to resign, the internet was taken down nationwide. This lasted until January 10.[3]
Suspected actor The Kazakh authorities, who have exclusive powers over the national internet access and mobile connection.[2] [4]
Target The Kazakh citizens and their internet access. The official targets were the terrorists. [4]
Target systems The attempts to take the internet down probably started with blockage of access through Depp Packet Inspection (DPI) tools. When proved insufficient, redirection of DNS traffic and/or blocking of the transmissions by service providers was most likely used. [5]
Method Kazakhstan’s internet is highly dependent on the Kazakhtelecom telecommunications provider, dominated by the government.[5]

According to the National Security Law, amended in 2017, the government is allowed to shut down internet access and mobile connection during mass riots or anti-terrorist operations. The request to internet service providers and mobile operators of launching a blockage, which they are obliged to obey, can be issued without a court order.[6]

In the beginning, the Kazakh government attempted to block the internet through DPI tools, according to the Russian Forbes. [7]Based on the monitoring and filtering mechanism, DPI has been used by some countries for censorship. [5] However, it can be circumvented by either encrypting traffic or virtual private networks (VPNs). This is why the government had taken a step further, shutting down internet access wholly and manually. The concrete process is unclear, but The Conversation [5] offers three possible scenarios. First, the government could have rerouted domain name servers (DNS) traffic by simply leading the users to the non-functional webpage. Second, the internet providers carried out the shutdown, who were ordered to block transmission based on the legal obligations mentioned above. And third, the access has been denied by the authorities, who have the capacity to disable it (using a kill switch in simplified terms). The second scenario is, according to other sources[2] [8] [9], the most likely what has happened.

According to Russian source 360tv.ru [8], Chinese experts were helping with the disconnection, but this could not be confirmed by other media. The whole process seems similar to the internet shutdown Belarus experienced in 2020. [9]

However, it is clear the government was in charge of the blockage because it could restore the connection for several occasions during the protests to inform the citizens on the latest orders (including the arrival of the Russian troops to restore order, prosecution instructions or the order to the forces to shoot without warning). [2][5][10]

Purpose The internet shutdown aimed to cut the flow of information about the protests going through social media and news. [5]The official reason was to “suppress terrorists, not everyday citizens”. [4]
Result During the first days of unrest, shutdowns were geographically localised to the cities and targeted chiefly on the messaging applications Telegram, WhatsApp or Signal. [2] When the national shutdown took place on January 5, about 95 per cent of internet users were blocked from the internet. [3]

The consequences of the internet disruption touched upon citizens’ everyday life. Most government interactions (for example, paying taxes) occur online and were thus unavailable. [4]People struggled to pay for food because payments by cards or mobiles were not functional. Cash could not be withdrawn. [2]

Some users were able to get back online with the help of Kazakh software engineers outside the country, exploiting a backdoor caused by outdated Cisco equipment used by Kazakhtelecom. [11] Yet, most people had no chance to get the information regarding the situation. People were unaware of the ongoing violence, and misinformation started to circulate. [11] This probably caused the unrest did not to stop when a demonstrators’ requirement concerning the removal of the former president Nursultan Nazarbayev from the Security Council had been heard out. [12]

Aftermath As the clashes turned violent, casualties officially reached 225 deaths and countless injured.[13] According to BBC[1] , Human Rights Watch[13] , and The Diplomat [4], open fire, tear gas and stun grenades were deployed even against peaceful protestors, and some people experienced torture when detained, which the government denies. About 10 000 people ended up in the prison cells, and 700 criminal cases were opened, including charges of terrorism, murder and attempts to overthrow the government. [1]

Also, at least 12 per cent of Bitcoin’s computational power vanished as the internet was taken down. [14]For years, Kazakhstan has been a “bitcoin sanctuary” , the second centre for cryptocurrency mining in the world (the first are the United States). In the aftermath, some firms consider moving their business elsewhere.[15]

As The Conversation points out, taking over internet access by governments is a rising trend common to authoritarian regimes. Internet kill switches were deployed during civil protests in Burkina Faso, Cuba, Egypt, China, Iran, Sudan and Uganda. [5]Kazakhstan already has a history with internet disruptions; in 2018, the authorities repeatedly suppressed the access when the opposition leader streamed live on Facebook; in 2019, social media got temporarily blocked; and in 2021, the internet went down during the anti-government protests. [2] These blockages, however, had not reached such scope, impacts on daily lives and human-life casualties as in January 2022.

Analysed in Scenario 24: Internet blockage

Collected by: Michaela Prucková

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 A Abdurasulov, “Kazakhstan unrest: ‘If you protest again, we’ll kill you’”, January 21 2022, BBC.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 N Krapiva, A Zhyrmont and A Skok, “Timeline: Kazakhstan internet shutdowns aim to crush protests, hide state violence”, January 12 2022, Access Now.
  3. 3.0 3.1 NETBLOCKS, “Internet disrupted in Kazakhstan as energy protests escalate”, January 4 2022.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 K Keegan, “Information Chaos in Kazakhstan”, January 10 2022, The Diplomat.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 M Hu, “Kazakhstan’s internet shutdown is the latest episode in an ominous trend: digital authoritarianism”, January 24 2022, The Conversation.
  6. D Baidildayeva, “Internet censorship in Kazakhstan: more pervasive than you may think”, March 26 2018, Open Democracy.
  7. V Skobelev and A Skrynnikova, “Интернет по расписанию и отключения вручную: как блокируют связь в Казахстане”, January 12 2022, Forbes.ru.
  8. 8.0 8.1 D Tolokevich and T Strukova, “«Выключить интернет одним рубильником». Как властям Казахстана удалось увести страну в офлайн IT-эксперт Масалович допустил, что интернет Казахстана помогли отключить китайцы”, January 10 2022, 360tv.ru.
  9. 9.0 9.1 A Naylor, “What Really Happened During Kazakhstan’s Internet Blackout?”, January 6 2022, GIZMODO.
  10. A Safdar and D Child, “Kazakhstan latest updates: Leader issues ‘shoot to kill’ order”, January 7 2022, Al Jazeera.
  11. 11.0 11.1 K Patin, “Kazakhstan shut down its internet. These programmers opened a backdoor”, January 27 2022, Coda.
  12. G Gotev, “Kazakh president removes ex-leader Nazarbayev from post amid unrest”, January 5 2022, Euractiv.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Human Rights Watch, “Kazakhstan: Killings, Excessive Use of Force in Almaty”, January 26 2022.
  14. S Tully, “Kazakhstan internet shutdown sheds light on a big Bitcoin mining mystery”, January 6 2022, Fortune.
  15. T Wilson, “Kazakhstan’s bitcoin ‘paradise’ may be losing its lustre”, January 17 2022, Reuters.