In Kazakhstan, trying to watch the World Cup online, or even just talking about the games with friends, has become really difficult.
This is because the Kazakh Government has taken to throttling the internet across the country for a couple of hours or so every evening. And their reason for doing this is quite remarkable.
Small-time political opposition
The throttling can be traced back to a court decision in March of this year when the opposition group Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) was declared an extremist organization.
Kazakhstan is ruled by President Nursultan Nazarbayev and has been since it gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. While it is officially a democratic presidential republic, it is a false democracy since political opposition and any form of criticism of the Government is not only rare but also extremely risky.
The DVK was established by Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former Government official who currently lives in self-imposed exile overseas.
He has taken to delivering political speeches and rallying calls against the current regime via live videos on Facebook live, a strategy that has worked pretty well for one of the most prominent opposition politicians in Russia, Alexei Navalny.
However, while Navalny has a fairly substantial support base in Russia, the DVK is not a major political force in Kazakhstan, with a very narrow support base.
But, despite this, the Government chose to take steps to declare the party an extremist organisation.
This has made sharing any pro-DVK illegal in Kazakhstan and the Government has requested that all DVK content be taken down from a whole host of different websites, including YouTube, Facebook, and Vkontakte. So far, only Russian-based sites have complied.
Another step they have decided to take is to throttle the internet across the entire country at times when Ablyazov’s videos are being broadcast.
This has the effect of preventing Kazakh citizens from being able to stream them, as their internet speeds are too slow. But it also has enormous, and presumably unintended, knock-on effects too.
One such effect is that most social media sites have become unusable for between two and three hours every evening, a time when many people are looking to kick back and relax online in the evening.
As one Kazakh citizen, Marat Kiyashev, a doctor from Almaty, told Eurasianet.org, this has really annoyed Kazakhs since the FIFA World Cup 2018 kicked off in neighbouring Russia.
“Today I couldn’t go onto Facebook and talk with my friends about the awesome match between Belgium and Panama,” he said. “It really made me mad.”
As well as social media, lots of Kazakhs will be seeking to stream matches online and also watching online content on sites such as YouTube. This is now impossible for long stretches every night.
The opposite effect
The irony is that by seeking to stop people from watching Ablyazov’s videos, the Government is actually making people more interested in them. He is a niche political figure, but by highlighting him in this way, the regime in Kazakhstan is making him seem much more important and significant than he is.
This is far from the first instance of Kazakh online censorship. We have reported previously about other social media restrictions, political crackdowns, and use of firewalls to surveil internet use across the country.
All of these actions have seen spikes in the number of Kazakh citizens turning to a VPN to get around Government restrictions and access the internet freely and without fear of reprisals.
That is likely to be the case this time as well, with popular VPN providers such as ExpressVPN, IPVanish, and NordVPN likely to be seeking more subscribers from Kazakhstan than is usually the case
But most people will not be turning to VPNs to try and watch Ablyazov’s political monologues on Facebook Live or YouTube.
Rather they will be wanting to watch YouTube videos, access their social media sites and, perhaps most importantly, continue to follow the World Cup without interruption!