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Kazakhstan’s plan to require tech platform “localization” opens door to censorship

A draft law in Kazakhstan would require foreign tech companies to open local offices and comply with content takedown demands within tight time frames, or have their services terminated. Advanced as a measure to protect children, the proposed law, “On Amendments and Changes to Legislative Acts on the Protection of the Rights of the Child,” is instead likely to undermine Kazakhs’ free expression and other human rights, and grant the government disproportionate censorship powers that are ripe for abuse. 

Access Now urges the Kazakhstan government to reject the proposal, as it fails to align with human rights principles. We provide a set of recommendations below for the government to safeguard Kazakhs’ freedom of expression and opinion, the right to access and disseminate information, freedom of association, and other rights protected under Kazakhstan’s constitution and international human rights law.

How the proposal threatens human rights

On September 15, the Lower House of the Parliament of Kazakhstan reviewed and approved the draft law. The amendments seek to restrict the activities of foreign internet platforms, social networks, and messaging services by requiring them to register local representative offices, headed by a Kazakh national, and to delete the information flagged by the authorities within 24 hours. As we note above, the refusal to comply may result in the termination of their services in Kazakhstan.

The proposed law raises several urgent concerns. 

The law is open for abuse 

First, while legislators claim the amendments are necessary to counter “cyberbullying,” it is not clear how these specific provisions targeting tech companies will address this problem. After all, in 2020, Kazakhstan requested Google delete bullying and harassment content just once, compared to 44 orders to remove criticism of the government. We have already seen states cite the need to protect children to pass laws that censor legitimate expression while failing to meet a legitimate objective. Consider Russia’s “gay propoganda” law,  which violates the rights of the children it is supposed to protect. The draft law in question also contains a vague definition for harassment (bullying), which opens the door for suppressing  any dissenting opinion.

The law threatens platforms’ capacity to push back in case of abuse

Second, while establishing national subsidiaries for foreign tech companies could make them more responsive to local users’ requests, and potentially give users better access to effective remedy and redress, the government should not compel the opening of local offices under threat of shutting down the platforms. If platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, YouTube, Twitter, and WhatsApp push back on any improper government demands that threaten human rights, they could be forced to withdraw from Kazakhstan. That would endanger Kazakh users’ freedom of expression and opinion, right to access and disseminate information, freedom of association, and other human rights protected by the national constitution and international human rights law.

The content removal protocols fail to ensure due process  

Third, any content removal requests should state the reasons for the removal and give the user the opportunity to appeal the decision or opt for judicial review. A short 24-hour period to implement removal orders, and extremely strict sanctions for non-compliance, such as terminating or slowing down access to social media platforms, is disproportionate, and risks over-compliance that would harm users’ fundamental rights and freedoms online. Furthermore, any request to remove a piece of content that allegedly violates national laws that is issued by competent public authorities should be subject to independent judicial oversight performed by independent and impartial courts. 

This kind of law has led to abuse and censorship in other countries   

Finally, the implementation of staff and data localization laws in other countries has demonstrated the pitfalls of this approach. We have seen governments using such regulations to gain leverage over social media giants and force them to comply with state-sponsored censorship and surveillance. The recent removal of Alexey Navalny’s app from Google and Apple stores, reportedly triggered by the threats of criminal prosecution and armed raids at Google’s local subsidiary offices in Russia, is one example of how local staff can be used to pressure companies into removing certain content without due process and in violation of human rights. Civil society has also raised similar concerns regarding a recently passed Internet law in Turkey (Law No. 5651), which forces social media companies with more than one million “daily users” to comply with the government’s requests for content removal. This dangerous law gravely undermines freedom of expression in Turkey, particularly in the absence of an independent judiciary where such orders can be successfully challenged.  

What we recommend

Kazakhstan must comply with its positive obligation to protect human rights of individuals as prescribed by legally binding standards of international human rights law. 

For these reasons, we urge the government of Kazakhstan to:

  • Roll back the proposed amendments that will not protect children and are likely to result in censorship and intimidation of tech platforms; 
  • Pass human rights-centric platform governance legislation that respects and protects human rights and the fundamental freedoms of individuals, with emphasis on the right to freedom of expression and opinion, protection of personal data, and online safety; and 
  • Issue publicly accessible transparency reports on a regular basis,  containing at minimum  the following comprehensive information: 1) the number, nature, and legal basis of all content restriction requests sent, 2) actions taken as a result of those requests, and 3) content restrictions based on mutual legal assistance treaties.