What Really Happened During Kazakhstan’s Internet Blackout?

What Really Happened During Kazakhstan’s Internet Blackout?
Almaty on January 6, 2022. (Photo: ALEXANDER BOGDANOV/AFP, Getty Images)

As protests erupted across the massive Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan on Wednesday, the government resorted to extreme measures, enforcing a wide-scale internet blackout lasting at least eight hours, blocking news and social media access in the former Soviet state. Eventually, scenes of chaos and burnt vehicles made their way onto news wires. As of Thursday, internet access in Kazakhstan remains patchy, while hours ago, Russia dispatched paratroopers to intervene in the region.

The internet outage severed communication with and within Kazakhstan. Disruptions continue to obscure the situation on the ground with sparse reports and photos leaking through the barrier. Internet service was cut again in the early hours of Thursday morning, according to cybersecurity watchdog Netblocks.

“We almost couldn’t get any information,” local journalist Assem Zhapisheva told Gizmodo. Zhapisheva was left stranded in Tbilisi, Georgia, after Kazakhstan’s airports closed down. “Just some little bits and pieces when people managed to use a proxy, or somehow had internet access for five to ten minutes.” She had no idea what was happening with her friends or family back home.

“Authorities are sparing no effort to control information about the protests and limit media coverage,” said Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s Jeanne Cavelier in a statement published Thursday. “We call on President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to immediately restore access to the Internet and to blocked websites, and to allow journalists to operate freely, without fear of the police, so that they can cover a protest movement that is already historic in its scope.”

The protests began on January 2, in response to abruptly doubled fuel prices. Experts suggest this was a mere tipping point in a long buildup since Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over in 2019, handpicked by predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev. Though Tokayev responded to protests by reversing the price hike and dismissing his cabinet, demonstrations continued. Nazarbayev’s statue was left lying, toppled on the ground in images circulating on Telegram Wednesday as protesters chanted ‘shal ket’ — or, ‘old man, out’. 

The Kazakh Interior Ministry reported Thursday that the previous day’s violent clashes with police resulted in dozens dead and hundreds injured. Kazakh media reports, many of which were pushed by Russian state media, claimed that protesters wielded clubs and shields, while Russian state wire Tass reported that the (unoccupied) presidential residence in the former capital, Almaty had been set on fire as demonstrators attempted a break-in. Almaty emerged as a key protest epicentre.

Riot police in Almaty, Kazakhstan on January 5, 2022. (Photo: ABDUAZIZ MADYAROV/AFP, Getty Images) Riot police in Almaty, Kazakhstan on January 5, 2022. (Photo: ABDUAZIZ MADYAROV/AFP, Getty Images)

As the country slowly comes back online, information remains scattered. One local report published by Latvia-based news outlet Meduza suggested that some demonstrations were not as violent as the world had been led to believe.

“It was clear that people were angry at the regime, but nice to each other,” one source told the outlet. “People were very reasonable. They treated each other very respectfully, they didn’t allow looting.”

The deprivation of internet access has created an atmosphere of confusion and anxiety, especially among people who feel like it’s dangerous to go outside amid protests, Diana T. Kudaibergenova, a lecturer of political sociology at Cambridge University, told Gizmodo. People are simply “disoriented, misinformed, stripped of what they used to [have].”

“This is a country that is super digitally connected,” Kudaibergenova said. “People are dependent on the internet for information because they know that a lot of information that they see in state media is partial, and they want to know more.”

“Because of the blockage and because of this information, we probably will not know the full truth for some time.”

Regional experts suggest that internet shutdowns are not a new tactic on the part of the Kazakh government, but the scale of the blanket nationwide outage is unprecedented.

“It has long been the policy of the Kazakh government to block the internet at the site of street protests, to prevent protesters from mobilizing and to prevent both protesters and journalists from sharing information about what is happening,” Joanna Lillis, Almaty-based journalist and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan told Gizmodo.

Lillis noted that blanket blocks on the internet and 3G/4G communications are less common than blocks around protest epicenters or of certain social media platforms.

“They have sometimes blocked specific social media sites, such as Facebook, for various reasons–for example, if an opposition leader is broadcasting live,” she added. “On this occasion they have resorted to this type of blanket blocks on internet and 3G/4G communications over large parts of the country, and sometimes over the entire country, though periodically some connections are available. That demonstrates the level of their alarm over the protests, which they clearly see as a threat to the regime.”

“Since 2019 it was always a strategy,” added Kudaibergenova. “When there was like the smallest protest the internet would be completely blocked off around the place where it was happening. So, let’s say, because protesters were in one city square … next to some monument, for example, so the internet would be completely out for 30 meters around that monument but if you walk away and leave the protest then your internet would come back.”

Cybersecurity watchdog NetBlocks’ CEO Alp Toker told Gizmodo that the internet blackout bore some resemblance to one in Belarus in 2020. “We have noticed parallels to the incident in Belarus, not least because some of the providers have cut out in a similar fashion in a coordinated manner,” Toker said. “And this happened at scale. … The disruptions do appear more reactive to the protests in general, across the country.” Though internet access was partially restored Thursday, it appeared that Telegram specifically remained difficult to access. (Zhapisheva noted that Telegram played a key role in coordinating some of the protests.) “Other platforms aren’t restricted, which suggests that there may be specific targeting of Telegram,” said Toker, adding that the platform is not fully effective at present.

Canadian Telegram proxy service Psiphon started to see a spike in usage too, rising from under 5,000 users on January 3, to more than 25,000 on January 5. “Psiphon has seen a ~10x growth in use from Kazakhstan,” said Psiphon President Michael Hull in comments emailed to Gizmodo. Some people have also reverted to using Skype or long-forgotten landlines, said Kudaibergenova.

Image: Psiphon Image: Psiphon

The blackout may not be a favourable long-term strategy for the Kazakh government’s attempt to quell the protests. The internet shutdown cut access to Kazakhstan-hosted websites and news sources and halted Kazakhstan’s bitcoin mining industry–the second largest in the world–but it also threw businesses and banks into disorder.

“Disruption on a national scale is problematic for the economy, for businesses and the trades, so it won’t be an attractive solution for the government,” NetBlocks’ Alp Toker told Gizmodo. “The longer it lasts, the worse things get.”

Aliide Naylor is the author of The Shadow in the East: Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front (I.B. Tauris, 2020).