Freedom on the Net
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Freedom on the Net Status
Freedom on the Net Total(0 = best, 100 = worst)
(0 = Best, 100 = Worst)
Obstacles to Access(0 = best, 25 = worst)
(0 = Best, 25 = Worst)
Limits on Content(0 = best, 35 = worst)
(0 = Best, 35 = Worst)
Violations of User Rights(0 = best, 40 = worst)
(0 = Best, 40 = Worst)
Key Developments: May 2012 – April 2013
- While internet connections remained somewhat slow and were subject to temporary outages in certain areas, there were no major nation-wide disruptions to internet access as there had been in previous years (see Obstacles to Access).
- Incidents of self-censorship and blocking or manipulation of political content online decreased (see Limits on Content).
- In the months leading up to the 2012 parliamentary elections, civil society groups created an online crowdsourcing portal to monitor any voting violations or campaign-related incidents (see Limits on Content).
Internet access and use continues to grow rapidly in Georgia, particularly as interest in connecting with friends through social-networking sites has increased in recent years. State bodies and several key politicians have also increased their use of the internet and modern social media tools to share information with citizens and attract attention from the potential electorate. Many government agencies are publicizing information on the web, including the Ministry of Justice, which publishes all laws, bills, and decrees of the government on its website.
The internet was first introduced in Georgia at the end of 1990s, and after a boom in new services such as broadband at the beginning of 2004, connections became available for almost everyone with a telephone line in Tbilisi. Internet subscriptions have also proliferated in other large cities. Online news media are still developing slowly, while a growing number of newspapers are launching websites, and major newspapers and news agencies are sharing content through applications such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Meanwhile, many journalists working in the traditional media sphere are looking for ways to advance their knowledge of internet technology and web tools.
In 2012–2013, there were fewer restrictions on online content in Georgia than there had been in previous years. There are no indications of censorship or content being blocked by the Georgian authorities or internet service providers (ISPs), and there are no recent cases of activists or reporters being questioned or arrested for their online activities.
Despite a moderate internet penetration rate, in 2012, social media tools and Web 2.0 applications were used alongside traditional media outlets to document and respond to significant political and social events. In the months leading up to the parliamentary elections in October 2012, in which the Georgian Dream coalition defeated the ruling United National Movement, the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute partnered with Georgian NGOs to produce an online Elections Portal where citizens could report incidents relating to the election and the preceding campaigns. Additionally, in September 2012, videos revealing prisoner abuse that were shown on television channels were also shared online via YouTube, while images and information about the subsequent protests were shared via Twitter.
The number of internet and mobile telephone users in Georgia is growing, but high prices for services and inadequate infrastructure remain obstacles, particularly for those in rural areas or with low incomes. According to statistical data collected by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 46 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2012, up from 37 percent in 2011; a survey by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) confirmed that 46 percent of the population accessed the internet on a daily basis. Only four percent of Georgians are unfamiliar with the internet altogether.
The most frequent activity among users was the use of social media tools (75 percent of users), while 45 percent used the internet to search for information, and 20 percent browsed the news. With 1.1 million registered users on Facebook, social networks serve as an important platform for discussion and information exchange among the more liberal segments of Georgian society. State bodies have also stepped up their use of the internet. For example, departments in the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Finance’s Tax Inspection, and others have developed online services that allow citizens to register and receive services, apply for identification cards, or file tax documentation. Several state services are entering the mobile apps market; for example, the Georgian Police have created an app where users can check important information or pay fines associated with tickets.
ISPs offer dial-up, DSL broadband, fiber-optic, EVDO, and CDMA connections. The average cost for an internet connection is $20 a month, and the lowest price for a 5 Mbps DSL connection is about $12 per month. Many users complain about the quality of connections and suffer from frequent outages. Nevertheless, there were over 430,000 fixed-line broadband internet connections in 2012, resulting in a broadband penetration rate of 7.6 percent, up from 0.6 percent in 2006.
Mobile phone penetration is greater than that of the internet and has continued to grow from 59 percent in 2007 to 109 percent in 2012. Mobile phones significantly outnumber landlines, and reception is available throughout the country, including rural areas. The use of mobile devices to connect to the internet has been limited by high costs, but providers are offering new and somewhat less expensive services, including CDMA and EVDO technologies.
The Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) introduced mobile number portability in February 2011 and fixed-line number portability in December 2011, giving users more freedom to switch between service providers and choose between price plans. According to a new national numbering plan, as of January 2012, all phone numbers have changed to align with international standards.
The web presence and internet usage of large companies and small businesses grew rapidly in 2012–2013, particularly as a result of social media tools. Many established brands and companies such as banks, financial institutions, artists, public figures, and electronics stores have begun to use social media to promote their businesses and build customer support, and more money is being invested in online projects.
Cybercafes provide internet access at reasonable prices, but they are located mainly in large cities, and there are too few to meet the needs of the population. Most cafes have less than a dozen computers, and customers often have to wait as long as an hour for access. Internet cafes have become a popular place for online gamers, where the younger generation spends hours playing online games. Many restaurants, cafes, bars, cinemas, and other gathering places provide Wi-Fi access, allowing customers to use the internet on their personal laptops. As part of the global tourism campaign “Tbilisi – The city that loves you,” the municipality has covered most central districts of the city with free Wi-Fi access. The connection speed is relatively slow; it allows users to connect to the internet via mobile devices, but the connection is not strong enough for laptops to offer a full browsing experience.
There are currently 32 entities registered as ISPs in Georgia, 10 of which are large networks of governmental services or corporations, which are closed to the public and serve only their own employees or branches. Most ISPs are privately-owned, and two ISPs serve more than two-thirds of the market: SilkNet, with more than 44.5 percent of the market, and Caucasus Online, with a 32 percent share. Three of the 20 ISPs are also mobile operators. A special report from Transparency International Georgia cites that many of the major telecommunications companies are owned by offshore shell companies.
The telecommunications infrastructure in Georgia is still weak and users may experience disconnections from the international internet up to two or three times per month, allowing them to access only Georgian websites. In general, the connection speed for accessing content hosted in Georgia is greater than for international content. There are many factors influencing the connection to the international backbone, including the major underground fiber-optic cable that is often threatened by landslides, heavy rain, or construction work along the road. However, contrary to instances in recent years when access throughout the entire country was disrupted, no significant outages were reported in 2012-2013.
The Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC) is the main media and communications regulatory body and is also responsible for regulating online media, although there have yet to be many test cases regarding the latter. The GNCC mostly deals with mobile operators, as well as television and radio broadcasting licenses. However, there is no significant difference between GNCC procedures for handling traditional media and those pertinent to telecommunications and internet issues; thus, criticism surrounding the commission’s alleged lack of transparency and flawed licensing procedures for traditional media may reappear in the context of internet regulation. Nevertheless, the GNCC has begun to involve the public in discussions and committee hearings, signaling that it is slowly turning toward openness and transparency. For example, the GNCC has started a project of monitoring the actual speed of the internet connection for customers of three main ISPs; however, the report is not yet available and the project may close before publication due to an alleged corruption case.
There is no evidence of online content being blocked in Georgia in 2012–2013. In 2011, the government temporarily blocked access to torrent sites and peer-to-peer file sharing services to discourage the illegal download of a Hollywood action film about the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. However, aside from this isolated incident, government censorship is not a major hindrance to internet freedom in Georgia.
YouTube, Facebook, and international blog-hosting services are freely available. Facebook is now the most popular website among internet users in Georgia, with bloggers and journalists increasingly using it to share or promote their content, gain readers, or start discussions on current events. Facebook is also used by civil activists and others as a tool for discussion about ongoing political and social events.
Users can freely visit any website around the world, upload or download any content, and contact other users via forums, social-networking sites, and instant messaging applications. 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 combat the problem. ISPs still host websites with a great deal of pirated material, but visits to such sites have decreased and given way to social-networking, video-sharing, blogging, and news sites. Within some state institutions and private companies, there are instances of website filtering software in place, designed to improve worker productivity by blocking access to sites such as Facebook and YouTube. At the same time, both governmental bodies and private employers are increasingly using social media for recruitment and public relations purposes.
There are no laws that specifically govern the internet, regulate online censorship, or ban inappropriate content such as pornography or violent material. There are also no blacklists or other registers of websites and online resources that should be blocked. Nevertheless, all legal regulations, particularly copyright or criminal law, apply directly to internet activities using legal analogy, and so far this legal ambiguity has not been exploited to impose significant internet content restrictions. However, there are some concerns about the impartiality of blocking decisions made by the GNCC. For example, the political nature of the 2011 decision by the GNCC to crack down on sites illegally hosting the film about the Georgian-Russian war, despite doing very little to combat online piracy in general, implies a lack of evenhanded decision making. To date, however, such decisions regarding online content have been rare.
Self-censorship among Georgian internet users is active to some extent but primarily centers on issues related to Georgian traditions, social norms, taboos, or religion. Instances of self-censorship due to political pressure have decreased over the past year. No cases of governmental manipulation of online content were reported—manipulation is neither systematic nor pervasive.
Inadequate revenues in the online news business, combined with a lack of technological knowledge, have hampered the expansion of traditional media outlets to the internet. The government’s apparent interest in blogging and social media could help spur traditional outlets to establish a greater internet presence, but this would also require more private investment in online advertising. Currently, it is estimated that annual spending on online advertising does not exceed $1 million, which is only approximately one percent of the total amount spent in the Georgian advertising market. At present, most online media outlets face difficulty in attracting advertisers; however, the market is rapidly changing and there are signs of improvement.
The Georgian blogosphere grew impressively to over 3,000 blogs in 2011, and online activism continued to increase in the second half of 2012. Much of this online activity was related to the fact that several videos of prisoner torture and abuse were leaked on television broadcasts, which resulted in mass protests throughout Georgia and caused an unprecedentedly high number of video views, shares, and discussions among almost all Georgian websites, blogs and other services.
Although most Georgians use the internet as a source of entertainment, various social media and communication apps have become important platforms for discussion and information exchange. In the months leading up to the October 2012 parliamentary elections, the National Democratic Institute partnered with three Georgian civil society groups—Transparency International Georgia, the International Society for Elections and Democracy, and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association—to produce an election monitoring platform where citizens could report not only violations on election day, but also incidents in the months leading up to the election, such as fraudulent voter lists or the illegal use of government resources.
Different political and civil society groups post calls for action on Facebook and use social media marketing tools for communicating with their supporters. However, most forms of online activism to date have remained online and have not had a significant impact offline. Minorities and vulnerable groups in general are not restricted from internet use, and are represented online through a small number of forums and blogs. During the last year, LGBT activists have started to extensively use online tools for coordination, distributing information, and protesting discrimination in the public sphere.
Civil rights, including the right to access information and freedom of expression, are guaranteed by the Georgian constitution and are generally respected in practice. 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. Furthermore, Article 20 of the constitution and Article 8 of the Law of Georgia on Electronic Communications include privacy guarantees for users and their information, but they simultaneously allow privacy rights to be restricted by the courts or other legislation. Online activities can be prosecuted under these laws—mainly in cases of alleged defamation, which was decriminalized in 2004—or under any applicable criminal law. Furthermore, a huge discussion on the independence of the judiciary has been taking place in Georgian society. International organizations such as Transparency International and Georgian NGOs such as the Georgian Young Lawyers Association have reported that despite recent reforms and changes in the judiciary system, its independence is still tenuous and “suffers from undue influence exerted by the Prosecutor’s Office and the executive authority.”
Nevertheless, there were no cases of charges against online users for libel or other internet activities in 2012–2013. There were also no known instances of detention or prosecution, and compared to previous years, there were no reported occurrences of extralegal intimidation or violence against users.
The Georgian Law on Operative-Investigative Activity, passed in 1999, grants the police and security services significant discretion in conducting surveillance. Police can generally begin surveillance without a court’s approval, though they must obtain it within 24 hours. There are some official requirements for launching such monitoring, but in reality it is sufficient to label the targeted individual a suspect or assert that he or she may have criminal connections. New amendments to the law promulgated in September 2010 require that websites, mail servers, ISPs, and other relevant companies make private communications data such as e-mail and chats available to law enforcement authorities when court approval is obtained. There were no known cases of this occurring in 2012; however, it was reported from an anonymous executive in the government that the monitoring infrastructure is still in place and allows governmental bodies to monitor and collect data on citizens’ telecommunication usage, habits, browsing history, and other details. In the spring of 2013, the Interior Minister and the State Prosecutor declared that all of the data which was collected during previous years under the named law would be destroyed.
Additionally, ISPs and mobile phone companies are obliged to deliver statistical data on user activities concerning site visits, traffic, and other topics when asked by the government. Cybercafes, on the other hand, are not obliged to comply with government monitoring, as they do not register or otherwise gather data about customers. Individuals are required to register when buying a SIM card in order to obtain a phone number.
Cyberattacks against opposition websites have not been a significant issue in Georgia, with the latest major attacks occurring in 2008 and 2009 in relation to political tensions between Georgia and Russia. By the end of 2012, the Data Exchange Agency started monitoring Georgian websites for the presence of malicious codes, hacking attacks, or other suspicious activities, publishing the information regularly on their website as well as on their official Facebook page.
 Onnik Krikorian, “Georgia: ‘Broom Revolution’ as Elections Approach,” Global Voices, September 23, 2012, http://globalvoicesonline.org/2012/09/23/georgia-broom-revolution-as-parliamentary-elections-approach/.
 International Telecommunication Union (ITU), “Percentage of individuals using the Internet, fixed (wired) Internet subscriptions, fixed (wired)-broadband subscriptions,” 2012, accessed July 1, 2013, http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ICTEYE/Indicators/Indicators.aspx#.
 “Development of e-communication in Georgia—access to the internet,” Institute for Development of Freedom of Information, http://www.idfi.ge/?cat=researches&lang=en&topic=108&header=.
 Elza Ketsbaia, “Internet usage in Georgia,” Net Prophet, January 30, 2012, http://netprophet.tol.org/2012/01/30/internet-usage-in-georgia/.
 Comparative data from two major ISP’s prices (SilkNet and Caucasus Online).
 Data provided by GNCC – Annual Report 2012 [in Georgian], http://www.gncc.ge/files/3100_2949_681569_ANNUAL%20REPORT%202012.pdf
 International Telecommunication Union (ITU), “Percentage of individuals using the Internet, fixed (wired) Internet subscriptions, fixed (wired)-broadband subscriptions.”
 International Telecommunication Union (ITU), “Mobile-cellular telephone subscriptions,” 2007 & 2012, accessed July 13, 2013, http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ICTEYE/Indicators/Indicators.aspx#.
 “Ported Subscriber Numbers Statistics,” Georgian National Communication Commission, May 25, 2011, http://www.gncc.ge/index.php?lang_id=ENG&sec_id=110&info_id=9071.
 “Porting of Subscriber Number of Fixed Network Started From Today,” Georgian National Communication Commission, December 1, 2011, http://www.gncc.ge/index.php?lang_id=ENG&sec_id=110&info_id=9812.
 Phone numbers now all begin with 0 and 00 prefixes.
 According to a leading marketing specialist David Birman: “2011 was the year of discovery of social networks for Georgian Businesses.” Commersant.ge, January 25, 2012, [in Georgian], http://www.commersant.ge/?id=6504.
 A complex and compelling database of the ownerships and relations between companies is provided by TI under following address: http://goo.gl/AgsVL. Transparency International Georgia, “The State of the Internet: Who Controls Georgia’s Telecommunications Sector?” February 2013, http://j.mp/16hJu3p.
 “Cracking Down on Pirated August War Movie,” Georgian America, 2011, http://georgianamerica.com/eng/news/cracking_down_on_pirated_august_war_movie_3179.
 “The Georgian Advertising Market,” Transparency International Georgia, December 2011, http://transparency.ge/sites/default/files/post_attachments/TI%20Georgia%20-%20The%20Georgian%20Advertising%20Market_0.pdf.
 Zakaria Babutsidze, et al., “The Structure of Georgian Blogosphere and Implications for Information Diffusion,” European Consortium for Political Research, August 5, 2011, http://www.ecprnet.eu/MyECPR/proposals/reykjavik/uploads/papers/1676.pdf.
 Chris Doten, “Only Amateurs Steal Elections at the Ballot Box,” NDItech DemocracyWorks, February 21, 2012, https://demworks.org/blog/2012/02/only-amateurs-steal-elections-ballot-box.
 The constitution is available in English at: http://www.parliament.ge/index.php?lang_id=ENG&sec_id=68.
 Article 19, Guide to the Law of Georgia on Freedom of Speech and Expression (London: Article 19, April 2005), http://www.article19.org/pdfs/analysis/georgia-foe-guide-april-2005.pdf.
 The law is available in English on the GNCC website at: http://www.gncc.ge/index.php?lang_id=ENG&sec_id=7050&info_id=3555.
Tamar Chkheidze, “Internet Control in Georgia,” Humanrights.ge, November 17, 2010, http://www.humanrights.ge/index.php?a=main&pid=12564&lang=eng.
 Barbara Frye, Ioana Caloianu, Vladimir Matan, and Molly Jane Zuckerman, “Georgia Offers Amnesty to Collect Illegal Surveillance Tapes, Baku Hits Back at RFE,” Transitions Online, July 29, 2013, http://www.tol.org/client/article/23879-georgia-offers-amnesty-to-collect-illegal-surveillance-tapes-baku-hits-back-at-rfe.html.