An internet conference in a surveillance state

Given Azerbaijan’s notorious record on censorship, holding the Internet Governance Forum in Baku raised some eyebrows.

President Ilham Aliev opted to go to an internet conference on local commodities rather than one on world policy [AFP]

I am in an authoritarian state listening to a panel about human rights, at an internet conference without internet access. It is November 5, 2012 and I am in Azerbaijan for the Internet Governance Forum, an annual conference sponsored by the United Nations to encourage dialogue on internet policy issues. This year’s IGF takes place in the Baku Expo Center, a warehouse-style building on an isolated compound on the outskirts of the city. The Center’s lack of interior walls or ceilings creates an acoustic black hole, rendering the stream of policy jargon literally incomprehensible. Delegates listen with headphones and speak only with microphones. “We have to make sure the voice of the people is heard,” says one policy official, and the people nod silently, adjusting their headsets for static.

Numerous commentators have bemoaned the fact that IGF, a conference dedicated to participatory dialogue about digital rights, was held in Azerbaijan, a country where bloggers are arrested for criticising their government. Azerbaijani officials proudly proclaim that they have a free internet and that they do not apply the blocks and firewalls common in other authoritarian states. This is true, but a free internet is of little use to a people who are not free.

In Azerbaijan, internet users are able to speak their minds, and the government is able to monitor them, intimidate them, arrest them, and abuse them. At IGF, a delegation of thousands of internet experts from around the world got a small taste of how digital media operates in a surveillance state. We modified our behaviour, struggled to protect our privacy, and relied on rumor in an information void. Incompetence became conspiracy, caution turned into paranoia. On IGF’s island of democracy, separated literally and figuratively from the rest of the country, we too succumbed to state control.

Paranoia, the byproduct of surveillance

In Azerbaijan, pro-democracy
advocates face major challenges

In the weeks leading up to the conference, delegates to IGF were given reminders of what to do when you enter a hostile internet environment: Change your passwords, use a VPN (virtual private network), delete unnecessary apps, bring a minimum of devices. There are many practical steps one can take to increase security. It is the psychological effect that is harder to shake.

For citizens of authoritarian states, the very knowledge that the government is listening is enough to curtail free expression. Self-censorship is as great a problem for citizens of these states as state censorship. The majority of delegates to IGF were foreigners, free of the pressures placed on citizens of Azerbaijan, yet they too bore the mindset – the most obvious being the search for motive behind mismanagement.

IGF was plagued by a number of technical and organisational problems, unusual for a UN conference but notable for how they were perceived in an authoritarian context. When the internet went out, as it did repeatedly, was it because the government wanted to inhibit our speech, or because they failed to allocate enough bandwidth? When the Azerbaijani language translator was late, was it because the state wanted to shield Azerbaijanis from foreign criticism, or because of Baku morning traffic? When the conference organisers neglected to provide food, water or coffee, was it because they were disorganised, or were they slowly trying to drive hundreds of jetlagged free speech advocates insane? (They succeeded.) Such were the conspiracies devised and dissected by the IGF delegation, hashed out on hashtags, the gossip and innuendo no clearer on the ground than it was online.

People want to find logic in the actions of authoritarian states, but it is the lack of logic, the inconsistency of approach, the arbitrary nature of punishment, that gives them their power. It was assumed that our communications were monitored, but this was never proven. Several delegates reported that their computers were hacked, but had no details on who did it or why. Some Azerbaijani activist delegates reported being harassed or intimidated upon entrance; others had no problems. Evidence is rarely conclusive, and as a result it is hard to issue a complaint – not that there is anyone to complain to about problems that are said not to exist.

One prominent Azerbaijani activist told me he had given up trying to protect himself, either online or on the ground. He has not changed his passwords in years, does not secure his network, and he speaks about political issues in public places. There was no point in trying to hide, he said, because they are going to watch him anyway. We sat in an outdoor cafe and talked about whether he would be jailed again. “What are the odds that someone is listening to this conversation?” I asked him.

“I don’t know, like 80 percent?” he said, shrugging, and I looked around at all the suddenly suspicious people, wondering whether to hold back, but I was tired. Self-censorship is exhausting: As regimes know, it is easier to shift one’s mindset so that there is nothing left to censor. Stopping the conversation seemed futile since, like my activist friend, I was not saying anything here that I had not said publicly. As an American, I had little to lose. For Azerbaijanis involved in politics, privacy is only one in a series of losses.

Authoritarian priorities

On November 6, 2012, President Ilham Aliev was supposed to address the IGF delegation at the opening ceremony. Delegates had received an English-language newspaper the day before trumpeting his administration’s technological prowess. “We see our country in the future as one of the world’s leading developed countries. Without a strong IT-sector it will be impossible to achieve,” the paper quoted Aliev, next to a picture of him with five phones.

Aliev came to the Expo Center, but he did not address the IGF. Instead, he went next door to the Bakutel conference, an exhibition of telecommunications companies of the Caucasus. On November 7, Bakutel released a glossy magazine filled with news of the day’s events – news briefs by business executives, details of Azerbaijan’s first satellite, and shots of Aliev and his glamorous wife, Mehriban, striding down a red carpet into the exhibition hall.

Aliev had shunned the internet conference on world policy for the internet conference on local commodities – a decision emblematic of how the internet is perceived by authoritarian regimes. Azerbaijan shows how you can have internet freedom without having personal freedom, how with access you become accessible. The questions being discussed at IGF – surveillance, privacy, ownership, security – were not the ones Azerbaijan’s government wanted asked, because they have already decided the answers. Next door at IGF, we could only argue from a distance, isolated and wary, watching ourselves being watched.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.