Kazakhstan's internet shutdown leaves millions in the dark during unrest

Monday, 10 January 2022 17:38 GMT

Kazakh service members stand guard during the protests triggered by fuel price increase in central Almaty, Kazakhstan January 6, 2022. Picture taken January 6, 2022. REUTERS/Mariya Gordeyeva

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The internet blackout also saw the global computing power of the bitcoin network drop sharply as servers in Kazakhstan - a global bitcoin mining hub - went offline

* Shutdown runs into a sixth day after violent uprising

* Outages hamper access to basic services, news updates

* Digital rights groups urge gov't to restore connectivity

By Umberto Bacchi

Jan 10 (Openly) - A state-imposed internet shutdown in Kazakhstan entered a sixth day on Monday, leaving millions of people struggling to access basic services and information about anti-government protests that have rocked the country, digital rights groups said.

Connectivity was restored nationwide for a few hours on Monday, according to Internet blockage observatory NetBlocks, before being cut off soon after in the Central Asian nation following last week's wave of unrest.

"Earlier today, some users briefly came online for the first time in five days," the group said on Twitter.

The streets of Kazakhstan's biggest city Almaty returned to near-normal on Monday after the worst violence in three decades of post-Soviet independence, with thousands of people detained and some public buildings torched.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said his country had weathered an attempted coup d'etat.

Authorities cut off access to the internet completely on Wednesday last week, NetBlocks said, as protests against a New Year's Day fuel price hike spread into nationwide demonstrations against the government and ex-leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81.

Aisha, a resident of the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan who asked not to give her real name, said she was working at her office when the shutdown took effect, leaving her with no source of news about developments in the country.

"My TV does not work without the internet, and there was no news on the radio at all, only entertainment programs," she said via email.


Authorities started blocking internet in some parts of the country and limiting access to social media platforms several days earlier as protests erupted in the western city of Zhanaozen, said digital rights group Access Now.

Swiss-based internet firm Proton said in the early days of the protests it recorded a 1,000% increase in sign ups to its virtual private networks (VPN) service from the country, as people tried to get online.

But that way of skirting the outages came to a halt on Jan. 5, as internet access was cut off nationwide.

"VPNs can be useful in circumventing targeted blocks ... But if the whole internet is down it's a different situation," said Proton spokesman Edward Shone. "If you can't get online, then you can't get online."

The shutdown was the most severe ever recorded in the country, said Callum Voge, European government affairs and advocacy manager at the Internet Society, a U.S.-based digital rights nonprofit.

Connectivity was partially restored intermittently a few hours a day, but not everywhere, NetBlocks said.

People struggled to buy food as card terminals and ATMs crashed, leaving those without cash in trouble, Aisha said.

Getting in touch with relatives and friends was also difficult as many people were unable to top-up their phones and mobile communication was also intermittent, she added.

Voge, who lives in Prague, said his partner, who is from Kazakhstan, was unable to reach family members in the country and make sure they were safe for three days.

Dozens of people are believed to have been killed in clashes between security forces and demonstrators in cities across the country.


The internet blackout has also had some unintended consequences.

The global computing power of the bitcoin network dropped sharply last week as servers in Kazakhstan, the world's second-largest centre for bitcoin mining, likely went offline.

But from stock exchange transactions to food delivery orders, many other business activities grind to a halt without an internet connection, said Voge.

"Shutdowns reduce trust in the network," he said.

"So for businesses in Kazakhstan, there could be potential hesitancy in the future for using internet for their business ... And that's also true for international business partners who might want to invest in the country."

On Monday, a global coalition of rights groups called for internet access to be completely restored across the country "with no exception".

"Internet shutdowns do not create safer environments," read a statement from Access Now, one of the coalition members.

"But (they) provide a cover for state and non-state actors to get away with brutalities perpetrated against people while making it extremely difficult for journalists and human rights defenders to closely monitor developments during crises."

The office of Kazakhstan's president did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Announcing that internet access would be partially restored, Tokayev said in a speech on Friday that shutdowns were a response to "self-proclaimed activists" who think they have "the right to gather where they want and say what they want".

"Free access to the Internet does not mean free publication of fabrications, slander, insults, and inflammatory appeals," he said, according to a statement on the presidential website.

On Monday, there were signs of life returning to normal, including several hours of internet access in Almaty for the first time in days.

In Nur-Sultan, Aisha said she could get online without problems during the day - a welcome improvement after days of only brief connectivity spells that had made it difficult to get much done. "There is a certain confidence in knowing that you - and not someone else - are in charge of your own time," she said.

Hours later, her phone went silent again as NetBlocks reported the country was once more "in the midst of a near-total internet blackout".

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(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi in Tbilisi @UmbertoBacchi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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