Kazakhstan’s internet shutdown is the latest episode in an ominous trend: digital authoritarianism

The Kazakhstan government shut off the internet nationwide on Jan. 5, 2022, in response to widespread civil unrest in the country. The unrest started on Jan. 2, after the government lifted the price cap on liquid natural gas, which Kazakhs use to fuel their cars. The Kazakhstan town of Zhanaozen, an oil and gas hub, erupted with a protest against sharply rising fuel prices.

Immediately, there were reports of internet dark zones. As the demonstrations grew, so did the internet service disruptions. Mass internet shutdowns and mobile blocking were reported on Jan. 4, with only intermittent connectivity. By Jan. 5, approximately 95% of internet users were reportedly blocked.

The outage was decried as a human rights violation intended to suppress political dissent. The deployment of a “kill switch” to temporarily shut down the internet on a national scale renewed questions of how to curb the global threat of digital authoritarianism.

As a researcher who studies national security, cybersurveillance and civil rights, I have observed how information technology has been increasingly weaponized against civilian populations, including by cutting off the essential service of internet access. It’s part of an ominous trend of governments taking control of internet access and content to assert authoritarian control over what citizens see and hear.

A growing problem

Governments using a kill switch to block internet access on a provincial or national scale is increasing. In recent years, it has occurred as a form of social control and in response to citizen protests in multiple countries, including
Burkina Faso, Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Egypt, China and Uganda. The number of internet shutdowns is on the rise, from 56 times in 2016 to over 80 times in 2017 and at least 155 blackouts documented in 29 countries in 2020.

The correlation between the growing use of the kill switch and growing threats to democracy globally is not a coincidence. The impact of this trend on freedom and self-determination is critical to understand as authoritarian governments become more sophisticated at controlling information flows, including spreading disinformation and misinformation.

Legal shutdown

Kazakhstan’s internet is largely state-run through Kazakhtelecom, formerly a state monopoly. Foreign investment and external ownership of telecommunication companies in Kazakhstan are limited. The Kazakh government has the legal power to impose internet censorship and control through both content restrictions and shutdowns; for example, in response to riots or terrorism.

Under Kazakh law, the government is empowered to “temporarily suspend the operation of networks and (or) communication facilities” when the government deems internet communication to be “damaging” to the interests of an “individual, society and the state.”

Citing terrorist threats, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev paralyzed mobile and wireless services for almost a week and

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