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Azerbaijan-Georgia cooperation expands in telecommunications sector

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In March of 2021 Azerbaijan’s company Neqsol Holding become 100% owner of the Georgian internet provider, Caucasus Online, after the former owner of the company, Khvicha Makatsaria, transferred his 51% of shares to Nasib Hasanov. Hasanov, the owner of Neqsol Holding, had acquired the other 49% of the shares of Caucasus Online in 2019 for $61 million. Despite some experts’ raised concerns regarding Neqsol Holding’s full acquisition of Caucasus Online, it will strengthen the cooperation between Azerbaijan and Georgia and will be advantageous for both sides.

Neqsol Holding is a diversified group of companies that operate across oil, gas, telecommunications, hi-tech, and construction industries in different countries such as the UK, the USA, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and the UAE, providing services to over 25 million customers across the globe. The holding entered the telecommunication industry in 2005 by acquiring Bakcell, the first telecommunication company in Azerbaijan. One of the most important projects of the holding is an international project called the Digital Silk Road, which was launched in 2018 and was selected as one of the top five infrastructure projects in Asia in 2020. The main goal of the project is to develop a modern transit fiber-optic infrastructure network connecting Europe with the Central and South Asian markets through Georgia and Azerbaijan.

The acquisition of the Caucasus Online by Neqsol Holding holds special importance for the implementation of the Digital Silk Road program, as it owns the only fiber-optic cable transiting internet traffic from Europe to the Caucasus. The most important physical asset of Caucasus Online is the Caucasus Cable System, which compromises the 1,200 km long fiber-optic cable constructed along the bottom of the Black Sea by Tyco Electronics. This cable directly transits Internet traffic from Europe to the South Caucasus and the Caspian basin. Therefore, the acquisition of stakes of Caucasus Online makes it possible to link its fiber-optic cable that connects Europe and Caucasus to the Digital Silk Road. It is expected that the creation of the Digital Silk Road will improve internet access and digital services for 1.8 billion people in the Caucasus, the Middle East, Central and South Asia.

In order to support the implementation of the Digital Silk Road and coordinate the works regarding this project, AzerTelecom has started the ambitious “Azerbaijan Digital Hub” program. The main goal of this program is to develop the domestic telecommunication infrastructure to meet the standards of the advanced economies and to eliminate Azerbaijan’s dependence on other countries for Internet access. After achieving these goals, Azerbaijan could become the region’s main seller of Internet access, transforming itself from an importer of digital services to an exporter.

Towards the implementation of the ambitious Digital Silk Road project, Azerbaijan has also inaugurated two fiber-optic cable lines with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan running through the bottom of the Caspian Sea. With high data-transmission capacity, the new undersea fiber-optic cables will enable the transmission of web traffic from Europe to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India via Azerbaijani territory. The 380-400 km long fiber-optic cable connecting Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan will have a data-transmission capacity reaching 4–6 terabits per second and is planned to start operating by the end of 2021.

The Digital Silk Road project creates great opportunities for Georgia as well. Georgia’s participation in this project has the potential to turn the country into the regional data center and potential investment destination for the tech giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix. However, despite the importance of the project, Georgian National Communication Commission (GNCC), the regulatory body overseeing broadcasting and electronic communications, was dissatisfied with the acquisition process of Caucasus Online by Neqsol Holding in 2019. GNCC accused Caucasus Online of violating the “Law on Electronic Communications” by not obtaining permission from the regulator for the change of shareholder. Along with these financial sanctions, the GNCC demanded to cancel the acquisition of the company’s shares and restore the previous status quo. For this purpose, the GNCC appointed a special manager to Caucasus Online starting from October 1, 2020.

The right to appointing special managers in telecommunication companies was given to GNCC after Georgia’s Parliament endorsed amendments to the electronic communications law in July 2020. Changes to the law gave unlimited authority to GNCC in controlling the telecommunication companies. These amendments have been widely criticized in Georgia, describing the norms proposed by the bill as unjustified interference in the property rights secured by the constitution. The Venice Commission also criticized the amendments stating that powers given to the special managers are so over-reaching that it leaves the shareholders with no say in the decision-making processes within the company.

Similar concerns regarding the violation of the “Law on Electronic Communications” were raised by GNCC even after the acquisition of the remaining 51% shares of the Caucasus Online by Neqsol Holding in March. However, after Caucasus Online’s former owner, International Online Networks appealed for a second time to the Appellate Court, it suspended special managers’ authority citing “substantiated doubts” about the legality of the regulator’s appointment. This decision of the Appellate Court of Georgia eliminated the barriers that prolonged the acquisition process of the Caucasus Online and the implementation of the Digital Silk Road project.

The acquisition of the Caucasus Online by Neqsol Holding is the next great example of the Georgia-Azerbaijan cooperation. Not coincidentally, the project is often dubbed by international observers as a “digital version of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline”. In recent decades, the close cooperation of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey has led to the implementation of several important energy and transport projects such as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, South Caucasus Pipeline, and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars. These international projects have transformed Azerbaijan to one of the main players in the energy security of Europe and both Azerbaijan and Georgia began to play the role of regional transport hub. After acquiring these statuses, Azerbaijan has been successfully working on projects and programs in the telecommunication sector with regional countries, in order to also become a digital hub. Hence, expansion of the cooperation with Georgia and acquisition of the Caucasus Online by Azerbaijani company strengthens position of both countries as a regional digital hub. Like other regional jointly implemented projects, the implementation of the Digital Silk Road will also significantly affect regional development and cooperation.

Orkhan Baghirov is a leading research fellow in Baku based think tank named Center of Analysis of International Relations. He is PHD candidate in Public finance and fiscal policy. His areas of research include regional and international economic relations.

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Closing the Cyber Gap: Business and Security Leaders at Crossroads as Cybercrime Spikes

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The global digital economy has surged off the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, but so has cybercrime – ransomware attacks rose 151% in 2021. There were on average 270 cyberattacks per organization during 2021, a 31% increase on 2020, with each successful cyber breach costing a company $3.6m. After a breach becomes public, the average share price of the hacked company underperforms the NASDAQ by -3% even six months after the event.

According to the World Economic Forum’s new annual report, The Global Cybersecurity Outlook 2022, 80% of cyber leaders now consider ransomware a “danger” and “threat” to public safety and there is a large perception gap between business executives who think their companies are secure and security leaders who disagree.

Some 92% of business executives surveyed agree that cyber resilience is integrated into enterprise risk-management strategies, only 55% of cyber leaders surveyed agree. This gap between leaders can leave firms vulnerable to attacks as a direct result of incongruous security priorities and policies.

Even after a threat is detected, our survey, written in collaboration with Accenture, found nearly two-thirds would find it challenging to respond to a cybersecurity incident due to the shortage of skills within their team. Perhaps even more troubling is the growing trend that companies need 280 days on average to identify and respond to a cyberattack. To put this into perspective, an incident which occurs on 1 January may not be fully contained until 8 October.

“Companies must now embrace cyber resilience – not only defending against cyberattacks but also preparing for swift and timely incident response and recovery when an attack does occur,” said Jeremy Jurgens, Managing Director at the World Economic Forum.

“Organizations need to work more closely with ecosystem partners and other third parties to make cybersecurity part of an organization’s ecosystem DNA, so they can be resilient and promote customer trust,” said Julie Sweet, Chair and CEO, Accenture. “This report underscores key challenges leaders face – collaborating with ecosystem partners and retaining and recruiting talent. We are proud to work with the World Economic Forum on this important topic because cybersecurity impacts every organization at all levels.”

Chief Cybersecurity Officers kept up at night by three things

Less than one-fifth of cyber leaders feel confident their organizations are cyber resilient. Three major concerns keep them awake at night:

– They don’t feel consulted on business decisions, and they struggle to gain the support of decision-makers in prioritizing cyber risks – 7 in 10 see cyber resilience featuring prominently in corporate risk management

– Recruiting and retaining the right talent is their greatest concern – 6 in 10 think it would be challenging to respond to a cybersecurity incident because they lack the skills within their team

– Nearly 9 in 10 see SMEs as the weakest link in the supply chain – 40% of respondents have been negatively affected by a supply chain cybersecurity incident

Training and closing the cyber gap are key solutions

Solutions include employee cyber training, offline backups, cyber insurance and platform-based cybersecurity solutions that stop known ransomware threats across all attack vectors.

Above all, there is an urgent need to close the gap of understanding between business and security leaders. It is impossible to attain complete cybersecurity, so the key objective must be to reinforce cyber resilience.

Including cyber leaders into the corporate governance process will help close this gap.

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Ethical aspects relating to cyberspace: Self-regulation and codes of conduct

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Virtual interaction processes must be controlled in one way or another. But how, within what limits and, above all, on the basis of what principles? The proponents of the official viewpoint – supported by the strength of state structures – argue that since the Internet has a significant and not always positive impact not only on its users, but also on society as a whole, all areas of virtual interaction need to be clearly regulated through the enactment of appropriate legislation.

In practice, however, the various attempts to legislate on virtual communication face great difficulties due to the imperfection of modern information law. Moreover, considering that the Internet community is based on an internal “anarchist” ideology, it shows significant resistance to government regulations, believing that in a cross-border environment – which is the global network – the only effective regulator can be the voluntarily and consciously accepted intranet ethics based on the awareness of the individual person’s moral responsibility for what happens in cyberspace.

At the same time, the significance of moral self-regulation lies not only in the fact that it makes it possible to control the areas that are insufficiently covered, but also in other regulatory provisions at political, legal, technical or economic levels. It is up to ethics to check the meaning, lawfulness and legitimacy of the remaining regulatory means. The legal provisions themselves, supported by the force of state influence, are developed or – at least, ideally – should be implemented on the basis of moral rules. It should be noted that, although compliance with law provisions is regarded as the minimum requirement of morality, in reality this is not always the case – at least until an “ideal” legislation is devised that does not contradict morality in any way. Therefore, an ethical justification and an equal scrutiny of legislative and disciplinary acts in relation to both IT and computer technology are necessary.

In accordance with the deontological approach to justifying web ethics, the ethical foundation of information law is based on the human rights of information. Although these rights are enshrined in various national and international legal instruments, in practice their protection is often not guaranteed by anyone. This enables several state structures to introduce various restrictions on information, justifying them with noble aims such as the need to implement the concept of national security.

It should be stressed that information legislation (like any other in general) is of a conventional nature, i.e. it is a sort of temporary compromise reached by the representatives of the various social groups. Therefore, there are no unshakable principles in this sphere: legality and illegality are defined by a dynamic balance between the desire for freedom of information, on the one hand, and the attempts at restricting this freedom in one way or another.

Therefore, several subjects have extremely contradictory requirements with regard to modern information law, which are not so easy to reconcile. Information law should simultaneously protect the right to free reception of information and the right to information security, as well as ensure privacy and prevent cybercrime. It should also promote again the public accessibility of the information created, and protect copyright – even if this impinges on the universal principle of knowledge sharing.

The principle of a reasonable balance of these often diametrically opposed aspirations, with unconditional respect for fundamental human rights, should be the basis of the international information law system.

Various national and international public organisations, professionals and voluntary users’ associations define their own operation principles in a virtual environment. These principles are very often formalised in codes of conduct, aimed at minimising the potentially dangerous moral and social consequences of the use of information technologies and thus at achieving a certain degree of web community’s autonomy, at least when it comes to purely internal problematic issues. The names of these codes do not always hint at ethics, but this does not change their essence. After all, they have not the status of law provisions, which means that they cannot serve as a basis for imposing disciplinary, administrative or any other liability measures on offenders. They are therefore enforced by the community members who have adopted them solely with goodwill, as a result of free expression based on recognition and sharing of the values and rules enshrined in them. These codes therefore act as one of the moral self-regulating mechanisms of the web community.

The cyberspace codes of ethics provide the basic moral guidelines that should guide information activities. They specify the principles of general theoretical ethics and are reflected in a virtual environment. They contain criteria enabling to recognise a given act as ethical or unethical. They finally provide specific recommendations on how to behave in certain situations. The rules enshrined in the codes of ethics under the form of provisions, authorisations, bans, etc., represent in many respects the formalisation and systematisation of unwritten rules and requirements that have developed spontaneously in the process of virtual interaction over the last thirty years of the Internet.

Conversely, the provisions of codes of ethics must be thoroughly considered and judged – by their very nature, code of ethics are conventional and hence they are always the result of a mutual agreement of the relevant members of a given social group – as otherwise they are simply reduced to a formal and sectorial statement, divorced from life and not rule-bound.

Despite their multidirectionality due to the variety of net functional abilities and the heterogeneity of its audience, a comparison of the most significant codes of ethics on the Internet shows a number of common principles. Apparently, these principles are in one way or another shared by all the Internet community members. This means that they underpin the ethos of cyberspace. They include the principle of accessibility, confidentiality and quality of information; the principle of inviolability of intellectual property; the principle of no harm, and the principle of limiting the excessive use of net resources. As can be seen, this list echoes the four deontological principles of information ethics (“PAPA: Privacy, Accuracy, Property and Accessibility”) formulated by Richard Mason in his article Four Ethical Issues of the Information Age. (“MIS Quarterly”, March 1986).

The presence of a very well-written code of ethics cannot obviously ensure that all group members will act in accordance with it, because – for a person – the most reliable guarantees against unethical behaviour are his/her conscience and duties, which are not always respected. The importance of codes should therefore not be overestimated: the principles and actual morals proclaimed by codes may diverge decisively from one another. The codes of ethics, however, perform a number of extremely important functions on the Internet: firstly, they can induce Internet users to moral reflection by instilling the idea of the need to evaluate their actions accordingly (in this case, it is not so much a ready-made code that is useful, but the very experience of its development and discussion). Secondly, they can form a healthy public in a virtual environment, and also provide it with uniform and reasonable criteria for moral evaluation. Thirdly they can  become the basis for the future creation of international information law, adapted to the realities of the electronic age.

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Ethical aspects relating to cyberspace: Behaviours and fake news

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It is customary to define etiquette as a set of rules of conduct governing the external expressions of human relations. Etiquette helps to preserve the integrity of society. It creates and maintains a certain social order, coordinates the joint actions of individuals and helps to overcome possible communication tensions. In this capacity, etiquette is functionally linked to morality: ultimately, etiquette is a form of practical implementation of moral principles.

Observing the rules of etiquette makes it possible to show goodwill and attention to others and express respect for them, and to make communication easy and pleasant. Despite all the similarities existing between morality and etiquette, they cannot be considered the same: the regulating function of etiquette is of a rather subordinate nature and its main function – as noted by many researchers – is integrative and differentiating. Etiquette ensures integration within a social group by giving its members special distinctive characteristics – the way they greet each other, speak and cautiously gain confidence in each other, etc. – thus enabling this group to create a sense of belonging. This allows the group to create new behaviours in order to distinguish itself from others. At the same time, however – as in real life – etiquette on the Internet (“netiquette”) not only unites people, but also separates them, by emphasising their differences in status (gender, age, class, social status, national and religious affiliation, etc.).

As a whole, the functions of integration/differentiation/distinction enable an individual to streamline relations both within his or her reference group and outside it, i.e. with “outsiders”.

There is no universal “netiquette”’, which is uniform for everyone in modern society: each socio-demographic and/or socio-professional group develop/develops its own rules of decency, along with the generally accepted ones, which serve as an integral element of its own sub-culture, understood not in a derogatory sense but as a variant/variety of minority culture or localised in a cyberspace environment. It is therefore not surprising that special rules of etiquette are formed on the Internet. In the strict sense of the word, netiquette is not etiquette, since it does not (and cannot) perform the main function of traditional etiquette: its function of differentiation – i.e. of determining the individual’s place in social hierarchy – is merely virtual and does not fundamentally entail the nature of status, since it lacks human contact or bodily contact, as you might well call it. Consequently, the communication and integration function of “netiquette” clearly prevails.

This function manifests itself in two ways. Firstly, it is one of the tools for building the collective identity of the members of a particular virtual community: by developing its own unique rules of behaviour, this virtual society/group is aware of itself as a whole and represents itself to others. Secondly, “netiquette” promotes the individual socio-cultural identification: the knowledge and implementation of its rules enable an individual to confirm his or her belonging to a particular community and to prove that it is “his or her” and not everyone else’s, as the rules of that particular “netiquette” are not written in any Archbishop John della Casa’s Galateo: or, the Rules of Polite Behaviour.

It is not by chance that a fairly widespread (and more severe) penalty for infringing the rules of a specific group “netiquette” is a sort of expulsion from virtual society, i.e. the disconnection of the offender from a given Internet resource. Therefore, “netiquette” also acts as a mechanism of socialisation and marginalisation at the same time.

Unlike in traditional communities, the possibility of group influence on an individual (e.g. through public opinion) on the Internet is limited. The anonymity of virtual communication makes it easy to avoid social pressure, and therefore the only effective method of influence in a virtual environment is the voluntary inclusion of a person in the social system, his/her internalisation of group values and rules. This implies the conscious acceptance of some obligations, mainly moral ones – no matter whether shared or not by the external society – by each participant in virtual interaction. From this viewpoint, “netiquette” rules can be seen as a guideline demonstrating the standard of correct behaviour in cyberspace. Therefore, these rules are of a marked ethical nature.

An analysis of the various versions of the Internet etiquette shows that the rules do not generally differ much from the traditional ones: they imply respect for communication partners and are based on the “golden rule” of group morality. At the same time, besides universal ethical standards, equally applicable to both real and virtual communication, “netiquette” also includes a number of specific rules due to the specificities of the communication channel. For instance, it is not advisable to write messages in capital letters, which is equivalent to shouting, as capital letters are bad for the sense of sight and the sense of hearing. It is also not advisable to send e-mail attachments without warning; to use coarse language; to send unexpected notifications; to send e-mails with an empty subject line; to distribute spam; to send unsolicited mail; to forward advertisements, etc.

It can be assumed, however, that, with the further development of information technology, the approach to virtual communication will align with the usual forms of interaction, until “netiquette” will be absorbed into traditional etiquette.

As is well known, most journalistic codes of ethics usually proclaim freedom of speech as the highest moral value: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (Art. 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). This freedom finds its maximum expression on the Internet: specialised institutions lose their monopoly on the generation of information contained therein and any user – for a minimal cost – can design and make any message publicly available without subjecting it to further changes.

The specificity of the Internet, however, makes it easier to show fake, anti-social and simply illegal material, because the Internet is a type of media in which it is easier to hide, change or falsify the identity of the author of a statement. On the Internet, in fact, it is never possible to say with certainty who actually is the author of a message (unless the information is protected by special cryptographic means), and the text published on the Internet can at any time be modified beyond recognition, moved to another server or simply destroyed.

The situation is worsened by the fact that there are no institutional or professional criteria for the quality and reliability of information on the Internet, except in the cases where relevant news is accompanied by reliability indicators outside the web (e.g. the reputation of the author or of the institution that has its own website, etc.). Therefore, mass communication on the Internet is totally anonymous and however binding.

In full accordance with the postulates of web ideology, the attempts to solve the problem of the dissemination of questionable information on the Internet (“fake news”) by creating specialised laws and by also introducing censorship, are resolutely opposed by members of the net community and usually end in failure. It should be borne in mind that it is impossible to provide a universal definition of what “reprehensible information” means, considering the various countries’ cultural, national and religious characteristics. Therefore, the development of a unified information policy in this area is hardly possible.

As an acceptable alternative to censorship and other legislative restrictions, it is proposed to consider filtering materials published on the web by using an algorithm for evaluating electronic documents. The advantage of this approach is that it gives users freedom of choice, thus enabling them to decide what kind of information they wish to receive. Admittedly, for this choice to be truly conscious and responsible, it is necessary to have a fully-fledged value system (i.e. the ability to discern), both for those who make evaluations and give ratings and for those who are guided by third parties, since the basis of any evaluation and rating is the identification of value – in this case the information disseminated via the Internet. The rating evaluation methodology (assessment of reliability) cannot therefore be effective without enhancing the information culture of society as a whole. (5. continued)

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