An internet conference in a surveillance state
Given Azerbaijan's notorious record on censorship, holding the
Internet Governance Forum in Baku raised some eyebrows.
Last Modified: 13 Nov 2012 13:35

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

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.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not
necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.