Status: Partly Free
Obstacles to Access: 13 (0–25)
Limits on Content: 15 (0–35)
Violations of User Rights: 12 (0–40)
Total Score: 40 (0–100)
Recent years have seen an increase in internet use and mobile-phone penetration in Georgia, though the impact of the new technology in the political sphere remains limited. The government generally does not restrict user access to content, though two significant events during the coverage period of this report influenced the development of the internet in Georgia: the nine-day state of emergency in November 2007 and the conflict with Russia in August 2008.
The internet was introduced at the end of 1990s and experienced a boom after new services like DSL and ADSL became available at the beginning of 2004. Online news media are developing slowly, but more and more journals and newspapers are acquiring domain names and launching websites. The main reason for this slow development is a lack of knowledge about technology and web tools, as well as a poor understanding of how powerful a platform the internet can be. The most developed parts of the Georgian internet are forums, followed by blogs, social-networking sites, and various web 2.0 sites. Restrictions on content and access are neither definitively set nor effectively enforced by law, as evidenced by the huge variety of sites containing illegal material.
Obstacles to Access
The number of internet and mobile-phone users is growing, but high prices for service and a lack of land-line telephone infrastructure remain obstacles to access, particularly for those in rural areas or with low income. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that as of 2008 there were approximately 357,000 internet users, for a penetration rate of 8.9 percent.1 However, additional sources suggest that there was a significant increase in internet use during 2008, so that at year’s end the number of users stood at just over 900,000, for a penetration rate of 14.8 percent.2 Internet usage in the capital, Tbilisi, and in the large city of Batumi is approximately 35 percent, while in other cities the average is around 15 percent.3 Mobile-phone penetration is more thorough, with a total of 2.6 million users out of a population of 4.3 million.4 Mobile phones outnumber land lines, and reception is available throughout the country, including in rural areas. However, the use of mobile phones to connect to the internet, while growing, is limited by high costs. In January 2007 there were only 5,500 mobile internet users registered, all of them using one service provider, but by end of October 2008 there were 56,500 users and two providers.
Language barriers do not seem to restrict residents’ ability to access the internet. While websites do not yet support minority languages, they are widely available in both Georgian and English. The main obstacle to internet access is the lack of modern infrastructure in rural areas, where phone lines and other communications systems are in need of vital maintenance. Economic barriers serve as an additional obstacle, as internet costs are high in relation to the average income. Fixed-line internet providers are reducing fees, but mobile internet providers are not yet changing their pricing policies.
Cybercafes provide internet access for reasonable fees, but they are located mainly in large cities and there are too few to meet the needs of the population. Most cafes have between three and ten computers, and users often have to wait as long as an hour for access. Many restaurants, cafes, bars, cinemas, and other gathering places provide wi-fi access, but not everyone has a laptop or mobile device to take advantage of this type of connection. Mobile-phone companies do not provide automatic internet service to subscribers; users are required to pay an additional fee to subscribe for internet service.
While the authorities do not regularly block access to specific websites, there have been a few cases in which they interfered with internet access on a large scale. In August 2008, the government blocked access to all Russian addresses (those using the .ru country code) in an effort to prevent users from receiving “unofficial” information about that month’s conflict. 5 The move was also a response to attacks launched by Russian hackers against Georgian government websites. In addition to limiting access to certain content, the government’s action affected Georgian users’ ability to access advanced applications based in Russia. Sites such as Livejournal (a popular Russian-owned blogging service), odnoklassniki.ru (the leading social-networking site in Georgia), mail.ru (an e-mail, photo, and blog-hosting service), and yandex.ru (a search engine, e-mail, site-rating, and counter service) were all made unavailable. The filtering was eased within days, and Georgian users were subsequently able to access e-mail services and social-networking sites. The YouTube video-sharing site, the social-networking site Facebook, and international blog-hosting services are freely available.
A separate 2008 dispute, this time between private actors, also affected Georgians’ ability to access the internet during the year. It erupted when Georgian Telecom, which owns about 80 percent of all telephone lines in Tbilisi, accused Caucasus Online of not paying rent for use of its infrastructure. The two companies are the country’s largest internet service providers (ISPs), and while Caucasus Online has more subscribers, it is forced to use Georgian Telecom’s lines to deliver service. Georgian Telecom cut off service to Caucasus Online users as a result of the dispute, forcing more than 150,000 internet subscribers to switch to its own service.6
The Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) is the country’s main regulatory body, and although there have yet to be many test cases, it seems to be fair in dealing with internet companies. However, there is no significant difference between GNCC procedures for handling traditional media and those pertaining to telecommunication and internet issues, so the criticisms that the GNCC has encountered with respect to its lack of transparency and licensing procedures for traditional media may reappear in the context of the internet. Indeed, the regulator’s failure to react promptly to the 2008 corporate dispute described above highlighted its inability to cope with fast-moving problems in the private sector.
Limits on Content
Government censorship is not a major hindrance to internet freedom in Georgia, though there have been some exceptions. Georgian internet users can freely visit any website around the world, upload or download any content, and contact other users via forums, social networks, and applications like instant messaging. In fact, content is so accessible that numerous sites offer illegal material such as pirated software, music, and movies, and the government has not enacted appropriate legal measures to limit illicit content. Within state institutions there is a small degree of mandated censorship, and the traffic and content is filtered for material like pornography and unlicensed software, but there is no official law or order regarding this practice. The government apparently does possess the capacity to block content on a larger scale, however, as evidenced by its actions in August 2008. While access to some social-networking sites with the .ru country code was restored fairly quickly, the block on Russian news sites stayed in effect until the end of September,7 and forum.ge, one of Georgia’s biggest discussion forums, was closed down for about five weeks. The decision to filter and censor was taken by the executive branch alone and lacked judicial oversight and other procedures that would have enabled public input or transparency. There was no clear legal basis for the action.
Many news sites and services were launched in 2008, which should result in the continued popularization of the internet as a source of information. However, in a spillover effect from traditional media, which operate in a harsher and less free environment, internet journalists are rarely critical and generally do not ask pointed questions of the government, politicians, or other institutions. Unlike bloggers, who write about daily life or professional issues, journalists who publish online report a high level of pressure from the authorities to practice self-censorship. Consequently, some write under pseudonyms, while others keep private blogs. From time to time online journalists complain that “someone” has tried to force them not to write or discuss particular topics. The state of emergency declared in November 2007, which resulted in temporary press and television censorship, was a particular boost for internet use, as many journalists and news agencies began to pay more attention to the medium. Multiple blogs and news sites were created to deliver news during the press and broadcasting blackout. Similarly, during the 2008 conflict with Russia, restrictions on content were circumvented fairly easily, as many state employees and even official press services of governmental bodies switched to free blogging platforms to publish their points of view as well as official announcements.8
There are about 50 bloggers writing in the Georgian language who try to remain active and current. However, at this point the blogosphere is still very weak. Traditional media still have a much stronger presence in society than new media, as every new social or political activity is widely screened on television and discussed in the newspapers, while the internet is viewed more as a source of entertainment or as a place to state contesting opinions. Minorities are not restricted from internet use, but they are represented online through only a small number of forums and blogs. Likewise, civil society groups do not have a significant presence online.
Mobile phones are not widely used for social or political mobilization. However, in August 2008 an anonymous text message was sent to mobile-phone users, urging them to attend a rally in Tbilisi “against Russian aggression and occupation.”9 It is estimated that at least 10,000 people took part in the rally.10 Mobile phones are already being used to support or deny official versions of events. Users are filming events as they happen and then posting the videos to sharing sites, often capturing images that are not shown on television and providing a more accurate picture of news developments.11 A group of volunteers launched the country’s first internet television channel in November 2008, possibly in an effort to fill the gap left by the shutdown of the opposition-oriented television station Imedi in late 2007. Due to technical problems the new channel is currently unable to carry live broadcasts and instead replays “archived footage of various television channels, footage taken by mobile phones and reports done by independent reporters.”12
Violations of Users’ Rights
Civil rights including the right to access information and freedom of expression are guaranteed by the Georgian constitution, and they are generally respected in practice. There are no specific laws that directly address online activity. However, the Law on Freedom of Speech and Expression “makes it clear that other ‘generally accepted rights’ related to freedom of expression are also protected even if they are not specifically mentioned.”13 At the same time, while there have been no cases to date, internet activities can be prosecuted under that law—mainly for defamation—or under any applicable criminal law. The judiciary has been unable to establish itself as an independent institution, and it continues to suffer from extensive corruption and pressure from the executive branch, though this has yet to play out in internet-related cases.14
Surveillance is not pervasive, and anonymous communication is allowed. However, in certain cases and under government orders, ISPs are obliged to deliver statistical data—separated by user—about site visits, traffic, and other topics. Mobile-phone companies are required to provide similar data when asked by the government. Cybercafes are not obliged to comply with government monitoring, as they do not register or otherwise gather data about users, and users are not forced to provide personal information in order to access the internet. People are not required to register when they buy a mobile phone, but registration is needed to buy a SIM card and obtain a number.
There have been no documented cases of extralegal intimidation or physical violence against online journalists, bloggers, or other information and communication technology (ICT) users. However, cyberwarfare was waged by Russian hackers against government websites during the August 2008 conflict. The websites of the parliament and the ministry of foreign affairs were knocked out for a few days, and hackers posted defamatory images of the Georgian president in their place. Georgia’s ISPs also came under attack, and mobile internet services were affected by problems in the phone network, which was overloaded with calls.15
3 http://act.ge/index.php?lang_id=ENG&sec_id=296&info_id=369, accessed December 2008
6 “Rights of Subscribers Are Sacrificed to the Controversy between Caucasus Online and United Telecom,” HumanRights.ge, October 24, 2008, http://www.humanrights.ge/index.php?a=article&id=3246&lang=en , accessed March 20, 2009
7 “Georgia cuts access to Russian websites, TV news,” Reuters, August 19, 2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/internetNews/idUSLJ36223120080819?pageNumber=2&virtualBrandChannel=0&sp=true , accessed March 26, 2009
9 “Anonymous SMS message calls for mass rally in Tbilisi,” Agence France-Presse, August 10, 2008, 2:26 pm
10 “Thousands rally in Tbilisi against Russia,” Agence France-Presse, August 10, 2008, 7:06 pm
13 Guide to the Law of Georgia on Freedom of Speech and Expression, http://www.article19.org/pdfs/analysis/georgia-foe-guide-april-2005.pdf, accessed March 17, 2009
14 Freedom of the Press - Georgia (2008), http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=251&year=2008
15 Global Voices Online, “Blogging the War,” August 28, 2008, http://globalvoicesonline.org/2008/08/28/georgia-blogging-the-war/, accessed March 17, 2009