Authorities generally respected digital rights in Georgia during the coverage period, which saw the enactment of a new constitution that guarantees the right to internet access. However, threats to internet freedom persisted on a number of fronts. While access increased, the growth was sluggish. Trolling, particularly by government-affiliated bots and users, intensified, most notably around June 2018 protests and the 2018 presidential election. Relatedly, harassment continues to mar the internet landscape, with several high-profile cases of online intimidation during the coverage period.
Georgia holds regular and competitive elections, and its democratic trajectory showed signs of improvement during the period surrounding a change in government in 2012–13. However, progress has stagnated in recent years. Oligarchic actors hold outsized influence over policy and political choices, and the rule of law continues to be stymied by political interests.
June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019
Around the 2018 presidential election campaign and at other points during reporting period, anonymous actors on social media distorted the information landscape by spreading misinformation (see B5).
Georgia’s new constitution, which declares internet access as a fundamental right, came into force in December 2018 (see C1).
A secretly recorded sex tape of lawmaker Eka Beselia was leaked on social media in January 2019, apparently in retaliation for her political stances, while in February, sex-education activist Khatia Akhalaia was subjected to rape and death threats online (see C7).
A Obstacles to Access
The number of internet and mobile phone subscriptions in Georgia continues to grow, but high prices for service, inadequate infrastructure, and slow internet speeds remain obstacles to access. The government has said it will address these challenges in the next few years, but little progress was made during the coverage period.
|Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections?||56|
Georgians face some infrastructural obstacles to accessing the internet. However, internet access continued to grow during the coverage period, with approximately 69.6 percent of households enjoying access in 2018, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).1 That year, the fixed broadband penetration rate was 13 percent and the mobile broadband penetration rate was 45.3 percent.2 According to a countrywide survey conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC), 54 percent of the population accessed the internet on a daily basis in 2018,3 with the most active users in the capital, Tbilisi.4 According to 2018 data from the National Statistics Office of Georgia, 64 percent of individuals aged six and above had used the internet within the last three months, while almost 35 percent had never used the internet.5
Internet service providers (ISPs) offer an array of internet connections. There were approximately 868,000 fixed-line broadband internet connections in May 2019, up from about 684,000 in May 2017.6
Mobile penetration rates have increased significantly in recent years, and stood at 133.4 percent.7 Mobile phones significantly outnumber landlines, and reception is available throughout the country, including rural areas. Since 2015, 4G LTE internet access has become available for Georgian consumers.8
In 2018, with the support of the European Commission, the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development began formulating a broadband development strategy with the participation of World Bank experts.9 Previously, the government tasked the Innovation and Technology Agency, created in 2014, with building high-speed fiber-optic backbone and backhaul infrastructure to serve at least 2,000 settlements by the end of 2020.10 In 2015, the agency established a noncommercial legal entity called Open Net to build this broadband infrastructure. The project, which costs approximately $150 million, is funded by tycoon and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Cartu Foundation. The move came after a government tender to major telecommunications companies to expand infrastructure failed to attract any bids because it was seen as unprofitable.11 To date, Open Net has not made significant progress in building broadband infrastructure, and some media outlets have asserted that the project is a failure.12
Many restaurants, bars, cinemas, and other public places provide Wi-Fi access, allowing customers to use the internet on their personal devices. In 2013, as part of a plan to improve infrastructure for local governance, the State Services Development Agency began developing community centers where local citizens could access the internet and online resources, including for government services. As of May 2019, 64 centers were operating across the country.13
Despite expanding internet access, many users complain about the poor quality of connections. Users submitted 113 complaints about poor telecommunications service in 2018, according to the latest report from the Georgian National Communications Commission (GNCC).14 Testing performed in May 2019 demonstrates that the average download speed for a fixed internet connection was 22.1 Mbps, lagging behind other countries in the region including Armenia, Russia, and Ukraine.15 The average download speed for mobile internet connections is slightly faster, at 27.6 Mbps.16 In March 2019, the GNCC launched a platform called Check that enables users to test the speed and quality of their internet connections and submit complaints about their ISP.17 Until recently, users were frequently disconnected from the international internet up to twice a month for a few minutes at a time, during which they could only access Georgian websites. Now that ISPs typically have backup international channels, cable damage is less likely to prevent access to the international internet, though connection speeds are generally faster for accessing content hosted in Georgia.
- 1. https://www.itu.int/net4/itu-d/icteye/CountryProfileReport.aspx?country…
- 2. https://www.itu.int/net4/itu-d/icteye/CountryProfileReport.aspx?country…
- 3. https://caucasusbarometer.org/en/nd2018ge/FRQINTR/
- 4. https://caucasusbarometer.org/en/nd2018ge/FRQINTR-by-SETTYPE/
- 5. https://www.geostat.ge/ka/modules/categories/106/sainformatsio-da-sakom…
- 6. https://analytics.gncc.ge/en/statistics-share/?c=internet&total=total&s…
- 7. https://www.itu.int/net4/itu-d/icteye/CountryProfileReport.aspx?country…
- 8. “2015 – the year full of new developments” ZETI.GE [in Georgian] January 12, 2015, https://web.archive.org/web/20160429091054/http://zeti.ge/menu_id/23/id…
- 9. Open Net. Program Description, accessed May 26, 2019. http://opennet.ge/eng/static/25/programis-aghtsera
- 10. Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia, “High Quality Internet to be Accessible to Every Region in Georgia” January 15, 2015, http://126.96.36.199/en/media/news/high-quality-internet-to-be-accessible…
- 11. Ucha Seturi,”Problems of the Cancelled Governmental Contest Broadband Internet to Every Citizen and Recommendations of IDFI,” Institute for Development of Freedom of Information, July 21, 2015, http://bit.ly/1LwMf5D
- 12. BMG Media, “Has the General Internetization Project Failed or not? – The Ministry does not have Information”, accessed March 20, 2019, https://bit.ly/2CrVzIk
- 13. For more information, see: State Services Development Agency, “Community Center,” [in Georgian] http://sda.gov.ge/?page_id=5555
- 14. Public Defender of Consumer Interests under Georgian National Communication Commission, “Annual Report 2018,” [in Georgian] accessed August 21, 2019. http://gncc.ge/uploads/other/3/3706.pdf
- 15. http://web.archive.org/web/20190629201034/https://speedtest.net/global-…
- 16. http://web.archive.org/web/20190629201034/https://speedtest.net/global-…
- 17. “Sheamowme” – Georgian National Communications Commission Started Control of the Quality of the Internet”, Georgian National Communications Commission, [in Georgian] accessed March 20, 2019, https://bit.ly/2TRtrJu
|Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons?||23|
Internet access is largely affordable, with monthly 1 GB mobile broadband plans available for 5 laris ($1.90).1 The average cost of a monthly fixed-line 20 Mbps broadband subscription was approximately 35 laris ($14).2 According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, the average Georgian earned 1,100 laris ($400) in 2018.3 ITU data from 2017 shows that a monthly entry-level fixed-broadband plan costs 3.3 percent of GNI per capita, while a monthly 1 GB mobile- broadband plan costs just 0.64 percent of GNI per capita.4
There is virtually no gender gap among Georgians who use the internet regularly.5 There is, however, a digital divide in terms of age and geography. Younger generations are more likely to use the internet: 94.6 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 24 use the internet every day or almost daily, while only 83 percent of Georgians aged 60 or older are daily or near-daily users, according to the National Statistics Office.6 Though mobile internet use in regions outside the capital is relatively high, 7 84.5 percent of Georgians living in rural areas use the internet every day, compared to 92.2 percent of city dwellers.8 Fiber-optic infrastructure is underdeveloped in the regions outside the capital, affecting the quality of connections. Development is hindered by the perceived low revenue potential of projects to build infrastructure, as well as the complex bureaucratic requirements to receive permission to commence civil works projects.
- 1. Comparative data from two major ISP’s prices (Geocell and Magticom).
- 2. Comparative data from two major ISP’s prices (SilkNet and Magticom).
- 3. https://www.geostat.ge/en/modules/categories/39/wages
- 4. https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/ICTprices/default.aspx
- 5. https://www.geostat.ge/ka/modules/categories/106/sainformatsio-da-sakom…
- 6. https://www.geostat.ge/ka/modules/categories/106/sainformatsio-da-sakom…
- 7. Tetra Tech, “E-Readiness Study in Georgia: Nationwide Survey.” Georgia Good Governance Initiative. October, 2016. P. 27, accessed March 20, 2018, http://www.dea.gov.ge/uploads/E-readiness_ENG2.pdf
- 8. https://www.geostat.ge/ka/modules/categories/106/sainformatsio-da-sakom…
|Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity?||66|
The government does not place any restrictions on internet connectivity, and the backbone internet infrastructure is owned and operated by private companies.
According to the constitution, the right to access the internet may only be restricted “insofar as is necessary in a democratic society for ensuring national security, public safety or territorial integrity, for the protection of the rights of others, for the prevention of the disclosure of information recognized as confidential, or for ensuring the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.”1 The government may assume control over the domestic internet if martial law or a state of emergency is declared.2
|Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers?||46|
There are few legal or regulatory obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers in Georgia, but market concentration limits competition. The information and communications technology (ICT) market is dominated by a handful of large companies.
According to the Law on Electronic Communications, telecommunications companies must receive authorization before offering services, though the licensing process is relatively uncomplicated. Companies are also required to purchase equipment facilitating government surveillance (see C6).
There are currently more than 166 entities registered as ISPs, all of which are privately owned.1 Two private ISPs control more than two-thirds of the fixed broadband market: MagtiCom with a 46 percent market share and Silknet with 33 percent.2 Consequently, competition is minimal.3 Some observers have raised concerns about market concentration, though pricing and service have not been significantly affected. (Thus far, only mobile internet prices have increased, due to speed improvements.4)
In 2018, the GNCC adopted a new regulation that obliges large ISPs operating fiber-optic networks to allow small and medium ISPs to access their infrastructure, enabling the smaller companies to offer services at dramatically reduced prices. Representatives of these small and medium ISPs say that the new regulation may be transformative in the long run and will encourage competition in the ICT market.5
All three mobile service providers—Geocell, MagtiCom, and Veon Georgia (previously Mobitel), which are privately owned—offer mobile internet service. MagtiCom and Silknet together control 70 percent of the mobile internet market.6
The telecommunications market was concentrated further in 2018 when Silknet acquired rival mobile service provider Geocell for $153 million.7 Silknet has combined its broadband, cable, and fixed telephony operations with Geocell’s mobile operations, creating a major conglomeration with significant market power.
- 1. https://analytics.gncc.ge/ka/near-providers/
- 2. Georgian National Communication Commission: Analytical Portal, June, 2019, http://analytics.gncc.ge/
- 3. Institute for Development of Freedom of Information, “Internet Freedom in Georgia – Report N5,” December 10, 2015, http://bit.ly/1XYIrkp
- 4. Georgian Public Broadcaster “Service Tariffs for Some "Geocell", "Silknet" and "Magti" Users Increased” http://ajaratv.ge/news/en/37744/service-tariffs-for-''geocell'.html
- 5. “Georgia Without Internet - The Universal Internetization Project has failed, and the Market is still Dominated”, BMF.Ge [in Georgian] accessed March 18, 2019 https://bit.ly/2UMTAp7
- 6. As of June, 2019, Silknet possessed 38% of subscribers, which was followed by Magticom with 32%. The share of the third company, Veon Georgia accounted for 30 percent of this market: Georgian National Communication Commission, Analytical Portal, http://analytics.gncc.ge/
- 7. “Silknet Acquires Geocell for $153 Million,” Tabula, January 26, 2018, http://www.tabula.ge/en/story/129047-silknet-acquires-geocell-for-153-m…
|Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner?||24|
The GNCC is the main regulatory body for the telecommunications sector. It mostly regulates service providers, as well as television and radio broadcasting licenses.
The commission has been criticized for lacking transparency and independence. In order to increase the legitimacy of the GNCC, new rules for the nomination (by the president) and election (by Parliament) of commissioners came into force in 2013.
While the GNCC has not made any politicized decisions in terms of ICT regulation, it issued two statements around Georgia’s October 2018 presidential election that cast doubt on its impartiality. The first criticized opposition-aligned television channel Rustavi 2 for expanding airtime for free political advertising, while the second asked all television broadcasters to remove three attack ads targeting Salome Zourabichvili, an independent candidate backed by the ruling Georgian Dream party and the eventual victor. Transparency International Georgia argued that these statements were not in line with the law and amounted to “the use of administrative resources for election purposes.”1
B Limits on Content
The government did not block access to any communications or social media platforms during the coverage period, and there were no major cases of blocking, filtering, or content removal. The internet, and social media in particular, continued to be effective tools to share diverse content and for advocacy.
|Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content?||66|
Georgian users do not face restrictions in accessing websites, uploading or downloading content, hosting their own websites, and contacting other users via forums, social media platforms, and communications apps.
In 2016, some social media platforms were subject to temporary restrictions when authorities attempted to block specific hosted content. Since then, no cases of blocking content on such platforms have been recorded.
YouTube was blocked twice in 2016 by authorities following the release of sex tapes of Georgian politicians. The first incident lasted for 20 minutes and affected only subscribers of the ISP Caucasus Online. Three days later, YouTube was again inaccessible for about an hour to subscribers of Caucasus Online and Silknet. Later in 2016, the same videos resurfaced on Vimeo, after which the entire platform became inaccessible for several hours. Representatives from Vimeo confirmed that the Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia requested the removal of the videos, after which access to the platform was restored.1
In a separate incident in November 2015, the State Security Service blocked the entire WordPress platform for a short period in an attempt to restrict access to a website hosted by WordPress that was disseminating videos by a pro-Islamic State group.2 Activists contacted the administrators of WordPress through Twitter to resolve the issue and the company subsequently corresponded with the government. All websites hosted by WordPress were then unblocked, except for one disseminating the videos.
Aside from these isolated incidents, government blocking and filtering is not a major hindrance to internet freedom in Georgia, and there are no blacklists of websites.
|Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content?||34|
Government request to remove content are rare in Georgia. During the coverage period, there were no new instances of content removal. The latest transparency reports from Facebook, Google, and Twitter reveal that the government did not issue any takedown requests.1
However, publishers and hosts operated in an uncertain legal environment during the coverage period (see B3) that encouraged the exclusion or deletion of legitimate content. That being said, no cases of political, religious, or social content being removed were reported.
|Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process?||34|
Restrictions on the internet and digital content are generally proportionate, but some legal provisions lack clarity regarding content removal.
The legal framework protects users against intermediary liability. The 2004 Law on Freedom of Speech and Expression states that no entity will be held responsible for defamatory content generated by unknown or anonymous individuals.1 Forced removal of content is also uncommon. Websites hosting pirated material are available and widely visited.
However, a 2006 GNCC regulation on “inadmissible content” contains some vague provisions on the removal of content and the responsibilities of publishers and hosts. The regulation prohibits any content that depicts hatred and violence, is defamatory, contains insulting and inaccurate material, undermines a suspect’s presumption of innocence, or constitutes an invasion of privacy. Local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have raised concerns about the broad nature of the regulation, which may compel third parties, including ISPs and website hosts, to identify such content and ensure its removal.2 There is no evidence that the regulation has been misused to date, and the GNCC has stated that it intends to amend it.
In August 2019, after the coverage period, the Constitutional Court invalidated three provisions of the GNCC regulation, finding that they violate the right of freedom of expression and are unconstitutional.3 The ruling effectively prevents service providers from blocking websites that feature “inadmissible content.”
- 1. Faig Alizada, “WILMAP: Georgia,” The Center for Internet and Society, Stanford University, http://stanford.io/1FIxwCU
- 2. Regulating Inadmissible Internet Content – Georgia in Need of Legal Changes https://idfi.ge/public/upload/IDFI_Photos_2017/media_internet_telecommu…
- 3. https://idfi.ge/en/regulating_inadmissible_content
|Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship?||44|
Although self-censorship is not widespread among online journalists and users, some individuals are hesitant to speak candidly online. For example, civil servants sometimes self-censor online due to fear of reprisals from senior officials. According to IREX’s 2019 Media Sustainability Index, online journalists faced pressure from the editors and owners of some media outlets to self-censor while reporting on the 2018 presidential election.1
|Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest?||34|
While there is no systematic or pervasive government manipulation of online content, government-affiliated groups have disseminated misinformation on social media to influence public opinion.1 For instance, during June 2019 antigovernment demonstrations, online activists reported that bot accounts and sponsored posts were being used to undermine the protests and disseminate progovernment information.2 The Media Development Foundation, a group that tracks content manipulation, observed dozens of fake social media accounts disseminating progovernment talking points and discrediting opposition parties, NGOs, journalists, business representatives, and other government critics throughout the coverage period.3
In addition, election monitors found that representatives of both the ruling and opposition parties ran disinformation and trolling campaigns during the 2018 presidential election. A report from the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) revealed that sponsored posts on anonymous Facebook pages were utilized to discredit both candidates in the second round of the vote.4 The majority of these pages focused on “casting the government in a positive light and discrediting its opponents,” including opposition presidential candidate Grigol Vashadze.5 However, fake news was also used to smear Salome Zourabichvili.6
In recent years, the number of Facebook pages disseminating fake news and far-right ideas has significantly increased, as well as the audience for such content.
In January 2019, Facebook announced that it had removed several inauthentic Georgia-focused accounts and pages originating in Russia.7
- 1. It is notable that online content manipulation, i.e., the use of fake news, boosted posts, bots, trolls increased after June 2019 demonstrations, when government-affiliated Facebook users and pages tried to discredit demonstration organizers and activists. See information about this issue: http://mythdetector.ge/en/myth/trolls-against-anti-occupation-protest
- 2. https://medium.com/dfrlab/gavrilovs-night-multiple-facebook-pages-targe…
- 3. Media Development Fund, “Troll Factory against TBC, NGOs and Media,” http://www.mdfgeorgia.ge/eng/view_research/161/
- 4. International Society for Fair Elections And Democracy (ISFED), “Number of Discrediting Facebook Pages Tripled for the Runoff - Second Interim Report of Social Media Monitoring”, accessed March 18, 2019, https://bit.ly/2OhH2nr
- 5. International Society for Fair Elections And Democracy (ISFED), Creating an Alternative Reality in Georgia: False Media Pages on Facebook”, accessed March 19, 2019, https://bit.ly/2U9bxkU
- 6. Netgazeti.Ge, “Saakashvili Admits that His Supporters were Creating Pages of Fake News during the Election” [Georgian], accessed March 20, 2019, https://bit.ly/2TqR46m
- 7. https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2019/01/removing-cib-from-russia/
|Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online?||23|
There are relatively few economic or regulatory constraints on online publishing. Established (and often politicized) online outlets effectively dominate the online media landscape, making it difficult for smaller news sites to attract advertising revenue. According 2017 recent data, the online advertising market has more than doubled since 2014. However, this growth has not positively affected the revenues of online outlets because ads are more frequently placed on social media platforms, where most Georgian users spend the majority of their time online.1
The government continues to fund a number of outlets disseminating biased news through contracts.2 Some have links to Russia and have been known to push an antiwestern agenda.3 Under the law, online outlets are not required to disclose their ownership.4
Compared to legacy media outlets, online operations face challenges in attracting advertisers, diversifying content, and obtaining multimedia skills. Private sector actors limit online advertising expenses due to the comparatively small audiences online outlets attract.
A May 2019 GNCC resolution obliged ISPs to employ nondiscriminatory traffic management practices.5
- 1. Transparency International Georgia, “The Georgian Advertising Market in 2017”, https://www.transparency.ge/sites/default/files/advertising-market-2017…
- 2. Media Development Foundation. Financial Transparency of Media 2017. Final report. 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/2kOWDww
- 3. Nata Dzvelishvili & Tazo Kupreishvili, “Russian Influence on Georgian NGOs and Media,” Damoukidebloba.Com, July 22, 2015, http://bit.ly/1L46V61
- 4. https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/pdf/media-sustainability-index…
- 5. https://www.gncc.ge/ge/legal-acts/resolutions/2018-4-.page
|Does the online information landscape lack diversity?||34|
The online media environment in Georgia is increasingly diverse, and content on a wide range of topics is available. However, recent reports from Transparency International1 and the Media Development Foundation (MDF)2 indicate that a number of news sites, some of which demonstrate bias and are affiliated with political parties, coordinate informally to disseminate information.
Although the Georgian blogosphere has grown significantly in recent years, there are few bloggers who create content that influences the political debate or sparks widespread discussion online. Minorities and vulnerable groups are represented online through a small number of forums and blogs. During the last five years, LGBT+ and feminist activists have used online tools for coordinating, distributing information, and protesting discrimination in the public sphere.
Toward the end of 2017, 63 percent of users reported that they use the internet to access social media platforms. Facebook is the most popular platform in Georgia, especially for political discussions. Bloggers and journalists increasingly use Facebook to share their content and engage readers on current events. Activists and others also use it as a tool for discussion about political and social developments. According to a 2018 survey by the Caucasus Research Resource Center, 18 percent of respondents considered the internet as their primary source of information, while 25 percent viewed it as their second source of information.3 However, television remains the dominant medium. IREX notes that “the largest national broadcasters have become blatantly partisan and have exacerbated the country’s divisions.”4
- 1. Transparency International Georgia, “Who Owns Georgia’s Media,” November 19. 2015, http://bit.ly/1oZeqkJ
- 2. Media Development Foundation. Anti-Western Propaganda, 2018. 2019. Available at: http://mdfgeorgia.ge/eng/view_research/169
- 3. Caucasus Research Resource Center, "NDI: Public attitudes in Georgia, March 2018,” accessed March 22,, 2019, http://caucasusbarometer.org
- 4. https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/pdf/media-sustainability-index…
|Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues?||66|
There are few restrictions on freedom of assembly online, and digital mobilization is a regular feature of political life. Political and civil society groups frequently post calls to action on social media platforms and use them to communicate with their supporters. Though most online activism does not result in a significant offline impact, its influence is increasing.
During and after the coverage period, online platforms, especially Facebook, were used extensively to organize protests on a number of issues. Notably, online mobilization played a vital role in organizing mass protests that erupted in June 2019 in response to a Russian lawmaker’s invitation to address the Georgian Parliament.1 Following several days of demonstrations, two out of three demands made by protesters—for the release of detained demonstrators and holding the upcoming 2020 parliamentary elections under a proportional representation system—were met by the ruling party.2 The third demand for the resignation of the minister of internal affairs over the violent dispersal of protesters, which left hundreds of people injured and led to scores of arrests,3 remained unfulfilled at the time of this report’s writing.
In May and June 2018, Facebook was effectively used to mobilize protests against drug raids by police on two nightclubs in Tbilisi. The minister of internal affairs subsequently apologized and the government renewed efforts to relax Georgia’s strict drug laws.4 However, the government had not addressed all of the protesters’ demands by the end of the coverage period.
Georgians continue to utilize the government’s expanding e-government services. Several government agencies have also introduced discussion platforms where people can express their views on various policy issues. In 2017, the government launched an e-petition platform, ichange.gov.ge, through which citizens can submit and collect signatures for petitions on government issues and policies. Petitions with 10,000 or more signatures are sent to the government for consideration. The government is then obligated to provide an official response to the petition’s authors.5 Similar online petition platforms were recently established by some local municipalities, including in Tbilisi.
- 1. https://eurasianet.org/protests-erupt-in-georgia-over-russian-mps-visit
- 2. https://civil.ge/archives/311037
- 3. https://eurasianet.org/violent-crackdown-throws-georgian-ruling-partys-…
- 4. OC-Media, “Interior minister apologises over Tbilisi nightclub raids as far-right groups plan daily protests”, accessed March 22, 2019, https://bit.ly/2HNO2qJ
- 5. Institute for Development of Freedom of Inforamtion (IDFI), “An Electronic Petition Platform – ICHANGE.GOV.GE – was Launched in Georgia”, December 27, accessed March 29, https://bit.ly/2lhiU6f
C Violations of User Rights
Article 17 of the newly amended constitution now recognizes the fundamental right to internet access. Civil society groups and political parties have continued to voice concerns about government surveillance, including by filing a constitutional complaint against intrusive 2017 surveillance regulations. Technical attacks and intimidation of internet users remain relatively rare, though a number of high-profile online smear campaigns were observed during the coverage period.
|Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence?||36|
While digital rights are nominally protected in the constitution and legal framework, there are doubts that the judiciary, whose independence is limited, can consistently enforce those protections. In December 2018, an amended constitution, which articulates a “right to access and freely use the internet,” came into force.1
The right to access information and freedom of expression are also guaranteed by the constitution and are usually respected in practice.2 The Law on Freedom of Speech and Expression states that other “generally accepted rights” related to freedom of expression are also protected, even if they are not specifically mentioned in the law.3 The legislation protects the confidentiality of reporters’ sources and enumerates other protections for journalists.4
A lack of judicial independence is regarded as a major hindrance to Georgia’s democratic consolidation.5 Despite several waves of reforms, local civil society groups, the public defender, and even some former members of the ruling party have raised concerns about changes to regulations on the selection criteria and electoral procedures for Supreme Court justices that took effect under the new constitution. Critics argue that the changes created an opaque appointment process and led to the appointments of unqualified judges. Local NGOs represented by the Coalition for an Independent and Transparent Judiciary have highlighted problems such as the packing of the High Council of Justice (the judiciary’s oversight body); the impact of the council in potentially undermining the independence of individual judges; the nontransparency of the council’s activities; and recent appointments of judges and court chairpersons who are unqualified or have tainted reputations.6 As a result of these and other concerns about the judiciary, many Georgians distrust judges and courts, and a majority of citizens feel that judges serve the interests of the government.7
- 1. https://matsne.gov.ge/en/document/view/30346?publication=35
- 2. https://matsne.gov.ge/en/document/view/30346?publication=35
- 3. Article 19, “Guide to the Law of Georgia on Freedom of Speech and Expression” (London: Article 19, April 2005) http://bit.ly/1KMt5WJ This law offers protections like absolute freedom of opinion, political speech and debates, obtaining, receipt, creation, keeping, processing and disseminating of any kind of information and ideas. The law specifically mentions that it is applicable to the internet as it defines “media as print or electronic means of mass communication, including the Internet.”
- 4. https://matsne.gov.ge/en/document/download/33208/1/en/pdf
- 5. https://www.state.gov/reports/2017-country-reports-on-human-rights-prac…
- 6. See some details about the ongoing developments about judicial reforms: https://bit.ly/2CCFQ9m
- 7. EMC, IDFI, CRRC, “Knowledge and Attitudes of the Population of Georgia towards Judiciary: Results of the public opinion survey”. 2018, accessed March 23, 2019, https://bit.ly/2JADSMD
|Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities?||34|
There are few laws that assign criminal or civil penalties for online expression, but online journalists and activists can be sued for defamation, and a law related to incitement is vulnerable to being abused to prosecute people for legitimate online activities. Defamation was decriminalized in 2004,1 but the Law on Freedom of Speech and Expression2 and the Law on Electronic Communication3 provide for civil penalties for those found guilty of making defamatory statements online. During the reporting period, several high-ranking officials, including the newly elected president and the chairperson of Parliament, called for a new law on defamation in order to protect human dignity.4 However, these statements were met with criticism from the media and civil society representatives.5 At the end of the reporting period, no draft law on defamation had been advanced in Parliament.
The unlawful use or dissemination of personal data online resulting in “considerable damage” is illegal under the criminal code, with penalties of up to four years in prison.6
In 2015, amendments to the criminal code criminalized “public calls to violent actions” aimed at “causing discord between religious, racial, ethnic, social, linguistic, or other groups,” punishable by fines and community service. Repeated offenses resulting in injury or death are punishable by up to five years in prison.7 Despite the narrow framing of the law, human rights defenders have claimed that its provisions could be selectively applied to punish legitimate expression online. Other criminal code provisions also apply to online activities.
- 1. Under the law, the burden of proving that information is incorrect lies with the plaintiff. The law also draws a distinction between defamation of a private person and defamation of a public person, setting stricter requirements for proving the defendant’s guilt in the latter case.
- 2. https://matsne.gov.ge/ka/document/view/33208?publication=6
- 3. https://matsne.gov.ge/ka/document/view/29620?publication=34
- 4. https://oc-media.org/proposed-georgian-defamation-law-puts-freedom-of-s…
- 5. Media Advocacy Coalition, Coalition “For Media Advocacy” Responds to the Statements about Legislative Amendments Related to Defamation”, accessed March 23, 2019, https://bit.ly/2TRc5wi
- 6. Legislative Herald of Georgia, “The Criminal Code of Georgia,” [in Georgian] http://bit.ly/1VADDwp
- 7. Legislative Herald of Georgia, “The Criminal Code of Georgia,” [in Georgian] http://bit.ly/1VADDwp
|Are individuals penalized for online activities?||46|
Georgians are generally free to express themselves online without fear of legal penalties, but a number of prosecutions for online activity raised concerns during the coverage period. The authorities periodically investigate internet users who threaten violence online, and civil society groups say their response can be disproportionate.
In February 2019, 16 individuals were arrested under Article 157 of the criminal code for storing and sharing an illegally recorded explicit video featuring Eka Beselia, a Georgian member of Parliament, via social media and messaging apps.1 As of May, all of the suspects had been released on bail, though they face up to eight years in prison if convicted.2
In November 2018, a court in Tbilisi sentenced Orkhan Abbasov to four years in prison for a 2016 Facebook post made during clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Abbasov, an ethnic Azeri, called on his Facebook friends to lay siege to the Armenian embassy in Georgia and take the ambassador hostage. Although he deleted the post after several days, the court convicted him in accordance with Article 330 of the criminal code, which prohibits public support of terrorist activities and terrorist organizations, or publicly calling for terrorism.3
During the previous reporting period, two rappers were tried on trumped-up drug charges after they posted a music video on YouTube mocking the police, and a condom company was fined for running an “unethical” online and offline ad campaign. The rappers were released and the charges against them dropped following a public outcry,4 while the condom company has appealed its fine before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).5
- 1. Oc-Media, “Beselia gives Georgian government one-month ultimatum over sex tape leaks”. March 28, 2019, accessed May 26, 2019 https://oc-media.org/beselia-gives-georgian-government-one-month-ultima…; https://police.ge/ge/shinagan-saqmeta-saministrom-piradi-tskhovrebis-am…
- 2. https://civil.ge/archives/275429
- 3. Batumelebi, “4-years of Imprisonment because of the Status Posted Two Years Ago” [Georgian], accessed March 23, 2019, https://bit.ly/2JzkTSP
- 4. http://www.tabula.ge/en/story/127764-drug-charges-against-birja-mafia-d…
- 5. https://www.mdr.de/heute-im-osten/georgien-kondomfabrik-weltaids-tag100…
|Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption?||34|
There are no restrictions on the use of anonymizing or encryption tools online. However, individuals are required to register when buying a SIM card with their passport, national identification card, or driver's license, undermining anonymous communication.1
|Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy?||36|
State surveillance of internet activities threatens Georgians’ privacy rights. The government has reportedly monitored opposition figures, independent journalists, and exiles from other countries living in Georgia.1
In 2017, Parliament adopted new surveillance regulations. The legislation was introduced after the Constitutional Court struck down the previous surveillance regulations in 2016, which had forced companies to retain user metadata for two years and allowed authorities real-time access to user data.2 The new law established an entity called the Operative Technical Agency (OTA), operating under the State Security Service. The OTA is responsible for surveillance activity across computer and telecommunications networks and can install clandestine programs on individuals’ devices in some circumstances.
Local civil society organizations criticized the law for failing to meaningfully address the earlier Constitutional Court ruling, pointing out that the OTA still has access to vast amounts of user data.3 The organizations indicated that they would appeal the matter to the ECtHR. A group that includes the public defender and the political parties European Georgia, United National Movement, Republicans, and Free Democrats, have appealed to the Constitutional Court. Their complaint argues that the creation of the OTA does not align with the court’s 2016 ruling, and that there are no strong oversight mechanisms or safeguards to protect the independence of the new agency. As of August 2019, the court had not yet reached a decision.
The activities of the OTA are subject to oversight by the Office of the Personal Data Protection Inspector, which monitors and determines the legality of data collection by authorities. A judge authorized by the Supreme Court performs oversight of counterintelligence activities. The Supreme Court proactively publishes surveillance data annually, and the latest data shows that the number of wiretap requests nearly doubled between 2017 and 2018.4
Article 15 of the constitution and Article 8 of the Law on Electronic Communications include privacy guarantees for users and their information, though those guarantees may be curtailed by the courts under certain circumstances such as “ensuring national security or public safety.”5
- 1. https://www.state.gov/reports/2018-country-reports-on-human-rights-prac…
- 2. Public Defender of Georgia, “Constitutional Claim regarding Georgian Law ‘On Electronic Communications’,” February 2, 2014, http://bit.ly/1x7JpZj
- 3. This Affects You Too. “New legislation regulating secret surveillance violates Georgian Constitution”. March 2, 2017. Accessed March 20, 2017 http://bit.ly/2mJwsrd
- 4. Supreme Court of Georgia, Statistics [Georgian], accessed March 18, 2019, http://www.supremecourt.ge/farulebi
- 5. https://matsne.gov.ge/en/document/view/30346?publication=35; http://www.gncc.ge/uploads/other/1/1222.pdf
|Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users?||46|
ISPs and mobile service providers are obliged to provide authorities with statistical data on user activities, including site visits and other information, upon request. Under the new surveillance regulations (see C5), the OTA has access to service providers’ infrastructure. These regulations also compel service providers to cooperate with OTA investigations (under judicial orders). The OTA can fine providers for noncompliance. Telecommunications industry representatives have expressed concerns about being required to purchase equipment to facilitate the OTA’s work.1
Since 2014, the Office of the Personal Data Protection Inspector’s mandate was extended to cover the private sector. The office is authorized to check the legality of any data processing by private organizations, either on its own initiative or in response to a citizen’s application. Inspectors can impose measures provided for by the law for violations, including fines.2 The office’s latest report revealed, that despite progress over the past years, both public and private entities continue to mishandle user data, including by failing to present and ask for court warrants, respectively, before personal data is handed over for investigative purposes.3 The office has the power to fine entities not complying with the rules.
Public access points are not obliged to comply with government monitoring, as they do not gather data about customers.
- 1. News.On.Ge: “Magticom Owner on Surveillance Draft Law: We won’t Purchase Any Technical Equipment’s”. February 24, 2017. [Georgian] Available at: http://go.on.ge/9l3
- 2. Office of the Personal Data Protection, “The Mandate Of The Personal Data Protection Inspector Extends to The Private Sector,” news release, assessed February 20, 2016, https://personaldata.ge/en/press/post/3826
- 3. Office of the Personal Data Protection, Annual Report 20178, [in Georgian] https://bit.ly/2CxDUPG https://bit.ly/2J8YSWA
|Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities?||45|
Although violence in retaliation for online activity is rare, during the coverage period, several high-profile instances of online harassment and smear campaigns were observed.
In February 2019, Khatia Akhalaia, a gender researcher and activist with the Association for Labor and Education, faced online aggression, including rape and death threats from ultranationalist groups, after she disseminated sex-education videos online.1 Law enforcement agencies launched an investigation into the threats.
In early 2019, a sex tape of Eka Beselia, a current lawmaker and former member of the ruling Georgian Dream party, which had been secretly recorded years earlier, was circulated on social media. The leak occurred after Beselia resigned as chairperson of Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee and criticized ongoing legislative proposals concerning the judiciary (see C1). Subsequently, the Ministry of Interior Affairs launched an investigation into the video’s leak.2
In addition, Georgia’s LGBT+ community faces sustained online harassment. In the run-up to the first-ever Tbilisi Pride event, held just after the coverage period, harassment intensified, with far-right Facebook pages disseminating anti-LGBT+ narratives.3
The 2017 kidnapping and rendition of Azeri journalist Afgan Mukhtarli from Georgia caused significant controversy. Mukhtarli, who was living in exile in Tbilisi, was abducted and sent to Azerbaijan, where he was charged with illegally crossing the border, smuggling contraband, and resisting the police.4 He had reported extensively on corruption in both Azerbaijan and Georgia. In January 2018, an Azeri court sentenced Mukhtarli to six years in prison and in September, his conviction was upheld on appeal.5 There are suspicions, which officials deny, that the Georgian government was complicit in the kidnapping.6 Mukhtarli’s lawyer stated that men wearing Georgian police uniforms kidnapped and handed Mukhtarli over to Azeri officials.
- 1. Jam-News. “Author of Sex-ed Video Tutorials in Georgia Threatened with Rape”, accessed March 23, 2019, https://bit.ly/2CA5Lyp
- 2. Civil.Ge, “MP Beselia Speaks of ‘Moral Terror’ After Alleged Sex Tape Leak”, accessed March 23, 2019, https://civil.ge/archives/274925
- 3. https://medium.com/dfrlab/anti-lgbt-facebook-posts-proliferate-in-georg…
- 4. “Georgia NGOs call for full investigation into Azerbaijan journalist’s abduction” RSF, June 7, 2017, https://rsf.org/en/news/georgia-ngos-call-full-investigation-azerbaijan…
- 5. https://www.occrp.org/en/27-ccwatch/cc-watch-briefs/8599-afgan-mukhtarl…
- 6. “Afgan Mukhtarli: Did Georgia help adbuct an Azeri journalist?,” BBC, July 18, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40606599
|Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack?||23|
Cyberattacks have not been a significant issue in Georgia as of May 2019. However, one of the country’s leading banks, TBC Bank, experienced a cyberattack in July 2018. Despite the fact that bank representatives notified the Ministry of Internal Affairs about the incident, even providing the location from which the attack was launched, the ministry only began to investigate after eight months, when details of the attack were leaked to the press. Opposition outlets have argued that the attack is connected with the progovernment trolls used during the 2018 presidential election to smear political opponents, including the founder of TBC Bank,1 who formally entered politics in July 2019.
In August 2019, after the coverage period, the television broadcaster TV Pirveli was subject to a cyberattack. As a result of the attack, the broadcaster lost access to its main server, and broadcasting was suspended temporarily.2 An investigation was launched in response.
In 2012, the Data Exchange Agency began monitoring Georgian websites for the presence of malicious code, hacking, or other suspicious activities, publishing the results regularly on its website3 and Facebook page.4 The agency’s “Safe Internet-Check My IP” service examines the security of the IP address on users’ computers, informing them of any viruses detected.
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