Resisting the rise of digital dictatorship in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

In Central Asia, internet shutdowns are harming all kinds of rights

Internet shutdowns are a favorite tool of authoritarian governments looking to suppress dissent, censor information, and control citizens, both online and off. In recent years, we’ve seen digital dictators, and those who emulate them, deploy these and other authoritarian tactics in countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan

Deliberately interfering with or disrupting access to the internet doesn’t just infringe on political and civil liberties, such as the right to protest, speak freely, vote, or unionize. When governments in Central Asia flick the kill switch, they endanger people’s lives, disrupt education, and trample on a broad range of economic, social, and cultural rights. The overall effect can be both far-reaching and enduring. 

Internet shutdowns threaten people’s lives, endangering personal security 

At a very basic level, cutting off internet access can result in bodily injuries and even death, especially during civic unrest. On January 8, 2022, during a week-long government-imposed internet shutdown in Kazakhstan, a family of three was killed when they ventured outdoors during a curfew. They were not aware of the curfew due to the lack of internet access. In another horrifying tragedy, two young children were shot in the street in Almaty, evidently unaware that those parts of the city were not safe at the time. 

Internet shutdowns lead to hunger and starvation, impacting the right to food 

Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to work toward realizing economic, social, and cultural rights for all, especially marginalized and at-risk people — if not immediately, then progressively. They must also ensure that no new policies or measures diminish the current enjoyment of these rights or delay their realization in the future. In today’s world, technology underpins many basic services, such as banking and online payment. That means internet shutdowns concretely impact the right to food. 

We saw this in early 2022, when internet shutdowns in Kazakhstan left some people unable to withdraw cash and saw many shops refusing debit cards. This meant that people, including families with children, without cash in hand went hungry. Similar deprivation occurred in Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, where people were blocked from the internet for weeks, and were unable to withdraw cash and to use online payment services to buy food. 

Internet shutdowns block access to healthcare, impacting the right to health 

Internet-enabled health monitoring apps can be life-saving for some people, such as those with diabetes. In Kazakhstan, for instance, many diabetes patients use such apps to monitor and respond in real-time to changes in their blood sugar levels, or to check the nutritional content of certain foods. But when internet access is cut off, they can’t do this monitoring, and for some people, that’s life-threatening. 

Internet outages disrupt the daily functioning of healthcare systems, such as the ability to book appointments online or conduct telehealth consultations, and they prevent patients and healthcare professionals alike from accessing time-sensitive public health information. In Khorog, Tajikistan, lack of internet connectivity meant that  a patient had to wait two days before doctors could review his test results— a process that would typically take two minutes. 

Internet shutdowns slow educational and scientific progress, impacting the right to education 

For a government to deliver on its obligations to make education accessible, it must provide learning opportunities, whether that is in a classroom or online. Internet shutdowns hamper both types of offering, whether by cutting off online class access completely or by limiting students from accessing online resources and learning platforms outside of class. In Tajikistan, students in Khorog and across the entire Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) region were suddenly unable to access online educational resources when, without warning, authorities cut them off from the rest of the world. Students could not connect for four months between November 2021 and  May 2022. The disruptions forced young people to travel 600 kilometers to Dushanbe to submit their applications online. 

Internet shutdowns also impinge on academic freedom, the exchange of ideas, and by extension, the ability of a country to make progress in key scientific fields. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, social media platforms and video conferencing services have been even more vital for building and sharing knowledge. When authorities in Turkmenistan blocked IT specialists from accessing the development platform GitHub, they limited their country’s capacity for scientific development.  

Internet shutdowns have widespread repercussions and are never justified

In 2022, internet shutdowns in GBAO (Tajikistan), Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan), and Kazakhstan were inherently disproportionate. As part of the #KeepItOn coalition, we call upon authorities across the region to cease shutting down, throttling, or blocking the internet, and to fulfill their duty to ensure all residents and citizens can exercise their rights.