Update (February 11, 2013):
Since this post was published, users in Azerbaijan have reported that they cannot access any imgur.com address; earlier in the week, direct links to images were still accessible.
The Azerbaijani government has a fairly unique way of controlling the Internet. Seldom are websites blocked. It does not behave like the governments of China, Iran or Saudi Arabia. But for a few weeks, one particular website has been inaccessible.
Imgur is a popular image sharing site. This isn’t Flickr or Snapfish where people post photos from their holiday party, it is a site where people post funny pictures, memes, and jokes. It is searchable, but people do not usually tag their photos, rather it is based on social sharing. And, most importantly, it is entirely anonymous and one does not even have to register or sign up for an account to post an image. It is quite popular for sites like Reddit.
A few weeks ago I sent a link to an Imgur picture to a friend in Azerbaijan and she couldn’t open it. Though unusual, this may have been due to an error in the system. But since then it seems to have happened multiple times. Users in Azerbaijan can access direct links to photographs, but otherwise Imgur.com is not working in Azerbaijan. This post begins with speculation on the problem, and then presents some technical evidence.
Why would Imgur be blocked in Azerbaijan? Why wouldn't Azerbaijan want people to look at LOLcats and cute animals? There is little evidence that Imgur is popular in Azerbaijan. For instance, a term search for Azerbaijan on the site turns up this delightful photo of Caucasian Shepherd puppies.
Imgur does not disclose to any third party Private Data you have given us, except to the extent necessary for credit card processing; in such cases your Private Data is used by credit card processors only for that purpose (including guarding against credit card fraud). The only exception, obviously, is if we are forced to disclose the information as a result of a subpoena or other legal process. You may correct, amend, or delete inaccurate Private Data information you have given us, although any credit card transactions that have already taken place will be unaffected. For legal reasons we may retain backup and/or archival copies of information prior to your corrections, amendments, or deletions. We take every reasonable precaution to protect your Private Data from loss, misuse, unauthorized access, disclosure, alteration, or destruction. You are responsible for taking every reasonable precaution on your end to protect any unauthorized person from accessing your Imgur account.
But those likely are not the reasons why Imgur is blocked in Azerbaijan. A few weeks ago the hacker group Anonymous released a huge volume of documents leaked from Special State Protection Service of Azerbaijan. In total, there were 1.7 GB of documents released, but someone went through much of it and made the most interesting documents available on another website – Imgur.com (see album here).
It is easy to see why a government might want to block a website hosting sensitive material of this sort. But what about Azerbaijanis that want to enjoy these?
To determine that Imgur is blocked in Azerbaijan, I asked multiple people located in Azerbaijan to test http://www.imgur.com using multiple Internet service providers — all reported that they could not access the site, but were instead met with a blank screen. I also used a proxy server (this made my computer think it is in Azerbaijan) to test it myself.
The above screenshot shows my browser checking that it thinks that it is located in Azerbaijan.
I typed http://www.imgur.com and http://imgur.com into my browser and displayed the message above. I then tried to search for imgur.com on Google.az (Google.az was the default Google because my computer thought it was in Azerbaijan.)
Next I tried to open Google Cache, a service that takes and stores “pictures” of websites so that if they go down, users can still see a version of that site's content. Google Cache did load for imgur.com, but as I understand it, Google Cache is universal, not country-specific. Next I tested it with a few sites that can verify whether a website's servers are down, including http://www.downforeveryoneorjustme.com/. The site indicated (see below) that while it was not accessible for me (being “in” Azerbaijan), the site was perfectly accessible elsewhere.
My next step was to try to figure out where the blockage began with a traceroute — this is a way to see the road that your computer travels, so to speak, to see a particular website.
Neither told me anything. It is as if you can’t really do a traceroute from Azerbaijan. So imgur.com appears to be blocked. It may be blocked for a legitimate reason, from the perspective of state security, but it demonstrates that the government is capable of blocking websites. What else might be blocked now or in the future?
If the site being blocked were Facebook, Azerbaijanis would likely be up in arms about the blocking. But because Imgur is not that popular, there may be little reaction.