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Kazakh Blog Ban Demonstrates Complexity Of Digital Free Speech


The blogging platform WordPress emerged from a rather mysterious ban in Kazakhstan this past week. Both the reasons given by the government and the structure of the blockage were peculiar, but most of all, it's a timely reminder of the political and technological issues surrounding digital free speech in Central Asia, not to mention the state of regional integration.

Strange as this may sound, it's not entirely certain when the ban precisely began or ended. The earliest sign of trouble appears to have been a discussion in the WordPress support forum on the morning of June 11. It was started by WordPress user yerlanislyamov, who stated that a "few hundreds of wordpress.com users" in Kazakhstan could not access their dashboards. The ban went on for a little over a month, appearing to be lifted sometime by July 18, when WordPress users in Kazakhstan began tweeting that access had returned.

This isn't the first time Kazakhstan has banned WordPress. According to Asqat Yerkimbay, the Kazakhstan country coordinator for the citizen-journalism network NewEurasia (disclosure: of which I am a managing editor), as far as is known, it's happened at least twice (other drops in service could have just been technical hiccups from the platform's side).

Nor is it the first time that a blogging platform has been blocked in the country, as Blogger (now Google Blogs) and LiveJournal have also been banned in the past. Such bans are almost normal. However, there are two details about this one that merit further consideration.

The first detail is the purported cause. Typically the reason given for a block is legal, as Kazakh law defines blogs as a form of mass media, making them susceptible to regulation and litigation. This time was no exception, although it wasn't until July 15 that Kazakhstan's minister of communications and information, Askar Zhumagaliev, provided an explanation, appropriately enough, via his blog. He cited a May 15 court decision to ban two blogs: caucase.wordpress.com and djagamat.wordpress.com.

Both blogs have been suspended by WordPress itself for violating the latter's terms of services, although I cannot determine when this happened (WordPress declined to comment about the suspension, citing their privacy policy). The most recent copy available on the Internet Archive for the first blog is from November 14, 2010; for the second, May 28, 2010. Both blogs are self-purported "Islamic news portals" for the Caucasus and seem to be affiliated with the radical Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus movement.

Although the two blogs' content is far from friendly, there's no obvious connection to Kazakhstan, and hence no immediately clear reason why they would have fallen afoul of official censors, especially when one can imagine all the other provocative blogs in existence. Kazakh bloggers speaking to RFE/RL believed that politics were behind the ban. Speculation included the timing of the ban with Kazakhstan's access to the customs union with Belarus and Russia, but it also coincided with Google's troubles in the country.

Correlation is, of course, not causative, but if we have to play this game, I think this is more interesting: the week before the court decision would have been when 25-year-old Rahimjan Makhatov was preparing his suicide blast in Astana. Also, intriguingly, a mirror blog, jamagat.wordpress.com, whose link can be found on the archived copy of djagamat (although its archives appear to be only a month old) and which has not yet been suspended by WordPress, has had a banner up since July 1 stating that the news service behind it, "Джамагъат" (from the Arabic "jamaat," or movement), is "temporarily not available."

The second detail is the structure and scope of the ban. To begin with, if it seems a little bit idiotic that all of WordPress had to be taken out just to block these two blogs, that's probably because it was. Yerkimbay believes simple technical incompetence was at fault: the censors took a sledgehammer to a situation that required a scalpel. Indeed, Zhumagaliev's blog post actually confesses as much.

Meanwhile, at first it seemed that the ban was affecting all web browsers except Opera, which also seemed strange, considering that Opera is the most popular browser in the country. However, it turns out that this was no mystery at all: apparently Opera's "Turbo" mode acts in a manner similar to a proxy server, in which all content is loaded via the company's servers.

The ban also affected the ability of WordPress users in Kyrgyzstan to access their dashboards, as well, as colleagues told me over Facebook that their dashboards had slowed down almost to unusability. This was a reminder of the ways in which the telecommunication markets between the two countries are uncomfortably intertwined: KyrgyzTelecom buys international traffic from KazakhTelecom, and on a number of occasions, the former has been affected by the latter's filtering practices.

All told, this strange ban is actually a useful little case study for the complexity of digital free speech in the region, as digital mediums remain vulnerable to censorship, the motivations of which can be puzzling. At the same time, though, censorship itself is vulnerable to the technical weaknesses of the censors, to say nothing of the practice's intrinsic illogic. Finally, as the customs union takes shape and Internet penetration gradually deepens across the region, it also reveals something about how integration may play out in Central Asia, at least at a telecommunicational level: very sloppily.

-- Christopher Schwartz

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at transmission+rferl.org

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