Influence of Social Networks and Messengers on Protests:
Matters of Privacy and National Security
Dana Mukhamedzhanova

PhD fellow, Deputy Director of the Graduate School of Law of the University of KAZGUU. M.S. Narikbaev. GDPR DPP (Data Privacy Professional), Expert of the OSCE Office in Nur-Sultan

These days, taking into account the growing influence of digital technologies throughout the globe, the question of the consequences of such influence during January events has become even more pressing, especially with regard to the impact of the hate language and fake news in the Internet on the citizens of Kazakhstan. The use of social networks, such as Facebook, increases both the reach of the audience and the speed with which the information is transferred, including, inter alia, within the framework of various political discourses.
Social networks embrace different age groups. Such a wide use of those platforms comes with privacy challenges and ethical problems. The former may have far-reaching consequences for professional and personal life as well as safety of the users. It is very hard to be absolutely safe in social networks, since they are intended for ongoing information exchange. Engagement in social networks sometimes makes people ignore privacy restrictions, leading to a certain degree of vulnerability in future. In this paper we would like to share our observations based on the abroad experience of the use of social networks and introduction of the Internet shutdowns and also reveal threats to both the privacy of citizens and national security during January events.

Information War during January Events

We lost informationally”, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan acknowledged in the end of January, “…disinformation campaign was literally gushing in. Once again, it suggests that aggressive assault against Kazakhstan had been thoroughly prepared”. According to the official and foreign sources, terrorist sabotage in Kazakhstan was well stage-managed. Attacks were aimed at strategically important facilities: Almaty city airport, military units, and suchlike. In Taldykorgan, for instance, bandits attempted to storm the pretrial detention center, and so on. The concept of peaceful assemblies was compromised at the very moment when the situation had become critically unmanageable, while the major law enforcement agencies were demonstrating their vividly helplessness. Doubling of fuel prices in early January sparked protests in the western oil producing regions of Kazakhstan. In the following days rallies pervaded large cities. Promises of the President Tokayev to reduce prices on liquefied gas and resignation of the government did not stop the demonstrators. The wave of protests continued to grow, having led to the imposition of the state of emergency (SoE) in the country and the Internet shutdown.
As of February 2022, amidst other criminal proceedings, 13 criminal cases had been initiated for the dissemination of false information during January events. According to the criminal case files, two suspects have been arrested, and two more persons have been placed under home arrest. In a briefing, Sanzhar Adilov, the Head of the Investigation Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, reported that “January events in Kazakhstan were followed by the deployment of the information war to obtain control over the social conscience of the citizens of our country… incidents related to the dissemination of knowingly false information through social networks have increased”. According to Mr. Adilov, they revealed 43 social network accounts registered abroad, which had been involved in the dissemination of fakes.
As early as in 2018, the Editor-in-Chief of, Pavel Bannikov, highlighted the importance of fact checking to verify the information: “The flow of information in the modern world is so enormous that it erases all boundaries between truth and falsehood. If you don’t want to live a lie, you need the skills that can be mastered by anyone who will take the trouble. They help to live in the current reality, and not in the reality corrupted by someone’s hostile intentions”. Information reliability verification, along with its further dissemination, is a crucial action to take, especially during a state of emergency.
One of the hard-hitting examples of the fakes dissemination was a message claiming that the personnel of the Special Rapid Deployment Force in Kazakhstan had joined the protesters. Its author was detained in the city of Kostanay. As reported by the Head of the Police Department of Kostanay Region, Beket Aimagambetov, the suspect turned out to be one of the key instigators of the mass riots. Just before the search, assuming that he would be arrested, he had transferred the reins of the messenger administrator to his associate in Ukraine, a former resident of Kostanay. The investigation has proved his role as an administrator of a group consisting of more than a thousand participants, where they called for the active engagement during the protests in the region. “The group started functioning in last October, but kept quite silent before January. At present, the acts of the suspect are covered by article 272 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan “Mass Disorders”, which provides for the imprisonment for the period from three up to eight years. The investigative operations have established that the group belonged to a circle of similar associations covering eight cities of Kazakhstan, suggesting the existence of some overarching coordination of all such activities around the country.
In another high-profile case, famous viner Meirzhan Turebayev was suspected in the dissemination of the knowingly false information as he had been blaming Taldykorgan policemen for tortures in detention.
Looking at the sanctions envisaged by the national legislation, we should definitely pay attention to article 274 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan. This article runs that the dissemination of knowingly false information, which carries the danger of public order violations or infliction of material harm to the rights and lawful interests of citizens, shall be punished with a penalty up to 1000 monthly calculation indices, either with corrective labor, or community service for up to 400 hours. It also implies such punishment as limitation of freedom for the period up to one year or imprisonment for the similar period of time. The same deed committed by a group of people upon a preliminary collusion, or by a person who misused his/her official position or employed mass media or telecommunications networks, shall be punished either with a penalty up to 3000 monthly calculation indices or with corrective labor in the same scope. Among other sanctions are limitation of freedom for the period up to 3 years or imprisonment for the similar period of time.
The analysis of the consequences of the participation in public riots and the liability of persons involved into group activities discovered various causes of their actions:
- Intention to participate in peaceful assemblies;
- Dedication to achieve changes in Kazakhstan by communicating their position through assemblies;
- Participation in protests;
- Violations of social security;
- Infringement on life of policemen;
- Idle curiosity and other circumstances.
The Akikat Commission[1] divided participants into several categories:
1) peaceful assemblers;
2) organized groups to create chaos and confrontation between peaceful citizens and law enforcement agencies;
3) organized groups to intimidate citizens and strong-arm into mass riots;
4) route leaders;
5) experienced and well trained assault groups, which might include specialists of the law enforcement authorities and their special forces;
6) law enforcement personnel to counteract participants of the events.
The algorithm of disseminating chat messages aimed at the coordination of rallies among self-employed and unemployed people speaks for the presence of some single center of control.

[1] A public commission named Akikat (The “Truth”) has been created to investigate January events in Kazakhstan. It was initiated by advocate Aiman Umarova.
The Internet Limitations and Struggle against Disinformation: International Experience

As to the international standards on human rights, temporary derogations of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the relevant international documents are, broadly speaking, allowable. Yet, such derogations may be justified in exceptional and most serious circumstances only’, for instance, during a state of emergency. Derogation-related provisions are included into the following international treaties: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, article 4) and European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR, article 15). So,clause 1 of article 15 of ECHR holds that “in time of war or other public emergency threatening the life of the nation” generally established powers are supplemented by a row of specific limitations allowable for the purposes of national security and public order.
The Internet shutdowns are not unique in consolidated democracies. For example, in 2019, British police shut down the public’s access to the Internet on the London underground to tackle planned protests by climate protesters.
According to the authors of the research paper ‘Internet Shutdown and the Limits of Law’, Giovanni De Gregorio and Nicole Stremlau, when shutdowns occur, they are usually met with fair criticism by free speech advocates and Internet freedom groups such as Access Now. Responses have, however, recently become more nuanced out of an increasing frustration with the slowness of social media companies to respond to online hate speech. Besides, there is a growing debate around the responsibilities of these actors. For instance, in September 2019, seventeen states and representatives of the Internet titans joined the Christchurch Call on the cooperation to struggle against extremism and ensure online security. The treaty was executed two months after the tragedy in Christchurch, New Zealand, where in March 2019 a criminal committed an armed attack at two mosques, bringing death to 51 people. The evildoer was live broadcasting on social networks. Despite all efforts to ban and delete such content, millions of people watched that video.
After the terrorist act in Christchurch, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron proposed initiatives to “eliminate” (if such a thing is possible) terrorist and violent extremist content online. The International Initiative to Counter Terrorism Online made the largest technology companies and social networks listen up and start fighting extremist content.
Another example of the Internet limitation and consequences of the dissemination of fake news is associated with the take-over in Myanmar, where the military ordered to temporarily block the access of citizens to Facebook. The website of the Ministry of Communications and Information of Myanmar informed that Facebook had been banned for ‘the purposes of stability’ because ‘people were disseminating fakes and disinformation, which leads to the misunderstanding among other people’. NetBlocks, a global Internet monitor, confirmed that, MPT, being the state telecom company, and many other private providers banned the access both to Facebook and its services such as Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp, having been ordered to do so by the army. In response, Facebook stated that they considered the situation to be ‘extraordinary’ and took measures ‘to protect against harm, including, among others, deleting any content that sang praises or supported the turnover’.
Methods of disseminating data and information define the deployment of conflicts and other violent acts, as it happened in Myanmar. The role of technology companies that provide an active support to the indirect parties of the war activities through the use of the technologies, which they have developed themselves, may cause serious damage and catastrophic humanitarian consequences. That said, digital technologies do not always serve to ensure the freedom of speech, but they can also be used in armed conflicts and contribute to the development of unparalleled means and methods of warfare.
With regard to the events in Ukraine in 2022 and ensuring sanctions against Russia, the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation submitted a demand to Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media) to block Instagram. That demand was directly related to the statement of Meta Platforms’ spokesman Andy Stone who said that the company would lift a ban on its social networks (Facebook and Instagram) for residents of a number of countries on posting calls for violence against Russian soldiers. At the same time, he stressed that calls for violence against Russian citizens were prohibited. Nonetheless, Tverskoi District Court of Moscow adjudged Meta to be an extremist organization and banned its activities within the territory of Russia. Later on, Senator Andrei Klishas clarified that Russian users of Instagram and other Meta products would not be considered extremists. It is notable that in the end of 2021, the Russian office of Meta faced penalties in the amount of 1.9 billion rubles initiated by Roskomnadzor since the administration of the social network had not fulfilled its demands to delete prohibited content.
Referring to the practical experience of struggling against false information, our attention should be drawn to the European approach to solving disinformation-related issues. Such approach focuses on the coordination with numerous parties engaged in the counteraction against disinformation as well as on the interagency and international collaboration, enhancement of the role of the private non-governmental content monitoring, responsibility of technology companies, and media literacy improvement.
In addition to rendering assistance to the European Union in the fight against disinformation campaigns aimed to destruct democratic processes, such measures can also be a role model for other countries, including Kazakhstan, for the development of their own strategies to fend off disinformation. However, UN experts on human rights urge governments to ‘avoid an excessive degree of security measures’ in the battle with disinformation. They emphasize that any emergency powers must be ‘proportionate, necessitated, and non-discriminating’ and must not be aimed at suppressing the freedom of speech and allowing invasion of privacy. In this respect, we suppose we need to highlight the role of the government in filling the information vacuum. Such regime would make it possible to communicate trustworthy and verified information in the most transparent and accessible manner instead of systemic shutdowns.
In concluding, we would provide regulating authorities with the following recommendations based on the analysis of activities to fight against fake news. Thus, it is necessary:
● To come up with new standards for the compliance with the cybersecurity requirements and adherence to the measures of control over the privacy of users;
● To establish criteria for keeping the balance between confidentiality and security, and to consider aspects of the freedom of speech and confidentiality in an attempt to achieve security;
● To ensure privacy and information security by instilling skills of the responsible and safe behavior in the Internet (digital hygiene training);
● To arrange regular activities of the systemic surveillance in the field of personal data (the Internet monitoring) for operators charged with the personal data processing;
● To settle the issue of the excessive collection and submission of personal data of citizens, and also to guarantee the protection of personal data by conducting unscheduled audits by relevant authorities on the personal data protection;
● To toughen measures on imposing administrative sanctions for violations of the personal data protection principles and procedures as well as to strengthen control over the liability for any unauthorized collection of information, if it contains elements of the individual’s private life.