Kazakh President Kassym-Jomat Tokayev signed into law a controversial bill that will require foreign social media companies to open local offices and register in Kazakhstan in order to operate. The law project, expressed as amendments to the country’s law on the protection of children’s rights, was announced by the Kazakh government as an effective measure to combat cyberbullying.
Critics note, however, that the law’s provisions may simply serve as one more way for Nur-Sultan to restrict free speech.
The law requires foreign internet platforms, including social media and messaging services, to register local offices run by a Kazakh national to liaise with the government. Companies that have a monthly user base of more than 100,000 have six months to comply with the new law. Companies are also required to respond to state orders to remove information deemed to be “cyberbullying in relation to a child” within 24 hours. The law attempts to define cyberbullying, identifying “actions of a humiliating nature, harassment and/or intimidation”, including efforts aimed at “coercion”.
In September 2021, as the bill made its way through the Kazakh parliament, Adil Jalilov, the head of the Kazakhstan-based MediaNet journalism center, criticized the law on Facebook, writing, “Which children will these rules protect? Perhaps only those of MPs and civil servants – from surveys of journalists and bloggers.
The law has echoes The 2013 “gay propaganda law” in Russia that sought to “protect” children from being exposed to homosexuality, or content that portrayed homosexuality as normal. In this case, the law is much more explicit in its objectives, but it illustrates how a law positioned as “protecting” children can be used to harm them. As Human Rights Watch noted in a 2018 report, “the law has been used to shut down websites that provide valuable information and services to teens across Russia and to block LGBT support groups from working with young people “.
Access nowa digital rights organization, argued in November 2021 that Kazakhstan’s bill was open to abuse, threatened platforms’ ability to push back, failed to ensure sufficient due process, and formed part of a pattern of laws on the localization of data around the world, which has led to the kind of censorship and abuse that critics warn.
While we don’t yet know how the law’s implementation will pan out, it’s worth looking at what kind of content Kazakh authorities have considered problematic in the past.
According to Google, the Kazakh government has made only 457 removal requests since 2011. During the period from January to June 2021, Kazakhstan made 84 such requests, its highest in a single six-month period on record. Most requests during this period were for YouTube content (81 out of 84), a trend that applies to previous periods. Most removal requests during this period from January to June 2021 were made by the Information and Communications Authority (79) and only four by the police; only one request was issued by the competent data protection authority.
Google evaluates each request and tags it with a “reason” – mostly, that’s Google’s determination, not the Kazakh government’s. During the January-June 2021 period, 34 requests were classified by Google as “critical of the government” and 43 as “national security”. Only three requests during this period were qualified as “hate speech”. Of all items called for removal (more than specific removal requests, as one removal request can span multiple items), Google took no action in 99.3% of cases during the period January- June 2021.
During each reporting period, Google highlights removal requests that it deems “in the public interest.” During the period January-June 2021, it highlights a request from the Kazakh government to “block a Google site on extremist grounds”. According to Google, the anonymous site “recommended voting for candidates outside the current regime; there was also information on how to report voter fraud. As such, Google denied the request.
These requests suggest the type of content that the Kazakh authorities really find problematic.
Facebook (now Meta) too provides information on government data requests, but Kazakhstan has not made many such requests. No requests were made during the period January-June 2021, or the preceding period. During the period January-June 2020, two requests were made concerning seven accounts; Facebook did not produce any data in response to these requests.
In November 2021, the Kazakh authorities popular get “exclusive” access to Facebook’s “content reporting system”. Meta pushed backnoting that Kazakhstan had the same access as other governments.
The new law paves the way for easier access by Kazakh authorities to influence decisions of social media networks and other online platforms via locally based staff who would be easier to lobby in person to make decisions in favor of the government, regardless of the content in question. In other words, if the platforms comply with the law in the first place.
Again, we can look to Russia as an example of what could follow. In November 2020 Facebook has paid a 4 million ruble ($53,000) fine on the Russian government after it refused to adhere to a law requiring Russian data to be stored on local servers. Apple and Google previously complied with the law, but Facebook and Twitter challenged it and were fined. The following year, in December 2021, a Moscow court ordered Twitter, Meta and TikTok to pay additional fines for refusal to remove content. In light of the Russian war in Ukraine, new fines have been imposed on Twitter for refusing to remove content, including content “offensive to Russia”.
Finally, it should be mentioned that the Kazakh authorities have other methods to shut down social media, including completely unplugging the internet, as they did in early January 2022. This is of course a brutal tactic. Pledging censorship on social media companies themselves is much more subtle.