Authorities in Tajikistan have ordered Internet service providers, again, to block access to Facebook, local news agencies report. The blocking orders (which this time also target the local service of Radio Liberty) have become so familiar in the past year that there’s little new to say. So let’s look at how the man in charge of Internet access has explained his thinking in recent months.
Last March, the head of the communications service, Beg Zukhurov, after denying any order to block Facebook, said his office had actually blocked the site for “prophylactic maintenance.”
Internet service providers have said they were ordered to block Facebook last weekend, along with three or four news portals, by the state communications service, after one of the portals published an article severely criticizing [President Emomali] Rakhmon and his government. When queried by news agency Asia-Plus, the head of the service, Beg Zukhurov, denied any order to block Facebook, but said the authors of offensive online content “defaming the honor and dignity of the Tajik authorities” should be made “answerable.” Tajikistan frequently uses libel cases and extremism charges to silence critical journalists.
In November, Zukhurov again flipped the switch and memorably called Facebook a “hotbed of slander” when he sought a meeting with the social network’s founder and chairman, Mark Zuckerberg.
"Does Facebook have an owner? Can he come to Tajikistan? I'd meet him during visiting hours. If he does not have time, I'd talk to his assistants,” the BBC’s Russian service quoted Zukhurov as saying. (Zukhurov's visiting hours are Saturday's from 10am to noon.)
Internet users in Uzbekistan have long circumnavigated draconian restrictions with the help of proxy servers – online pit stops that allow users to access blocked pages by concealing their IP addresses. But Tashkent has caught on.
Uznews reports that Uztelecom, the state telecommunications service, has started targeting proxy servers, too. Uztelecom, which controls access to all international phone and Internet connections, has begun denying access to websites with “proxy” in their URL addresses by blocking requests that use that word.
With one eye on the social media-led events in the Arab world, Tashkent has become increasingly wary of the Internet’s potential threats and has set its cyber police to work overtime. The cyber cops are, in turn, monitored by a secretive body -- the Expert Commission on Information and Mass Communications. This body was identified in Freedom House's Freedom of the Net 2012 report, in which the UzNet was described, unsurprisingly, as "not free."
The closing of the proxy route leaves Internet users depending on more technically advanced options to beat the blockers (or, for now, proxy servers that don't use the word "proxy" in their name). One option is Tor, free software that allows anonymous browsing. But Tor's site is also blocked in Uzbekistan.
UPDATE: On June 14 Asia-Plus reported, and local users confirm, the site is again available in Tajikistan.
Authorities in Tajikistan blocked access on June 12 to a widely read, independent online news service.
Dushanbe-based Asia-Plus is still publishing at news.tj with the help of proxy servers, but the content is not available to Internet users in Tajikistan. Users can, however, continue to access the site’s content on Asia-Plus’ Facebook page or through widely available proxy servers.
The head of the state agency in charge of IT and telecommunications, Beg Zukhurov, reportedly told Asia-Plus that the site was blocked because editors refused to pull comments that included slander and insults aimed at high-placed officials.
The website took down one comment Zukhurov found objectionable and he promised the site would be unblocked soon.
Asia-Plus regularly publishes material critical of the government of President Emomali Rakhmon, who has been in office since 1992. While the government jams some foreign news sites, it has not yet blocked such a prominent local source of news. The comments section of Asia-Plus is often full of wild innuendo and libelous anonymous commentary, as are comments sections on news sites around the world. Perhaps a reader wrote something that struck a particular nerve?
So goes the PR blurb for a new social networking site designed for Internet-unfriendly Uzbekistan, but, say critics, it might as well read “our clone of Facebook.”
YouFace.uz has an interface strikingly similar to its famous counterpart: from the blue background and logo touting free-of-charge access (YouFace: “It will always be free”; Facebook: “It’s free and always will be”) to the almost identical user layout.
In an ironic twist, the launch comes 18 months after the NBC show 30 Rock spoofed social networking platforms with a fictional site called – you guessed it – YouFace.
The real, Uzbek YouFace has so far attracted 332 users, and on May 31 they were avidly debating (in Russian and Uzbek) whether the Facebook clone would take off.
“A shining example of how a lemon can be turned into lemonade,” commented one.
“You shouldn’t steal from someone else,” snapped another.
Ayyub Abdulloh, 22, says the site is his brainchild, set up with four sponsors – but financial issues are “private.”
In an online YouFace chat with EurasiaNet.org, he defended it against plagiarism charges: “It is not similar [to] Facebook, but just looks like that.” He pointed out that cars have similarities which create “comfort for drivers,” and in the same vein “websites must be comfortable too.”
Uzbek-language articles on Wikipedia – the popular, crowd-sourced online encyclopedia – have suddenly become inaccessible inside Uzbekistan, regional news outlets are reporting.
Almost 8,000 entries in the Uzbek language appear to be blocked, reports Ferghana.ru. Visitors trying to access the site are redirected to MSN.com, a news aggregator operated by Microsoft. Wikipedia pages in other languages appear to be unaffected. RIA Novosti reports Tashkent has blocked the page in the past.
The sudden change is unlikely to surprise Internet users in Uzbekistan, where authorities have blocked hundreds of websites, including EurasiaNet.org, for years.
According to statistics cited by Ferghana.ru, Wikipedia is the tenth most visited site in Uzbekistan. The agency reports that over 8,000 people are registered to contribute Uzbek-language content.
Uzbekistan has some of the most draconian Internet restrictions on the planet. Paris-based press-freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders calls the country an “Internet enemy.”
Nevertheless, Internet usage is booming. In August 2011, according to official statistics, 7.7 million of Uzbekistan’s 28 million people were online, up from only 137,000 ten years earlier. What’s more, connection speeds almost doubled in the preceding year.
New copyright legislation has hobbled Kazakhstan’s Internet traffic and angered tens of thousands of recreational users of popular download sites. But the most pernicious effect could be on those who stray from the government line, as the legislation offers a new method for harassing activists and dissidents at a moment of intensifying repression.
The legislation consists of a number of changes to Kazakhstan’s laws on intellectual property, including making punishable by up to one year in prison the illegal use of copyrighted material, and by up to five years the organized distribution of such material. The legislation immediately affected popular torrent sites in the country, which distribute large files across the Internet through peer-to-peer sharing, and are commonly used to download pirated movies and TV shows.
After the law went into effect February 1, the number of torrent-trackers -- servers that coordinate communications among users downloading files -- dropped dramatically as providers withdrew service for fear of criminal liability. This in turn led to a surge in users turning to download sites outside of Kazakhstan, and the Kaznet, as the domestic Internet is called, slowed to a crawl.
As annoying as that may be for Azamat in Shymkent trying to get the latest season of House, Transitions Online points out that the legislation also threatens NGOs and other centers of independent thought in Kazakhstan:
When Turkish officials announced earlier this year that all internet users would soon be forced to sign up for a government-run filtering program (see this previous post), a loud outcry ensued, with protests and online campaigns forcing the government to reconfigure, though not completely abandon, its policy.
Today that new filtering policy is being put into effect. To get a sense of how the filtering program will actually work and what its intentions are, I sent a series of questions to Yaman Akdeniz, a professor of law at Istanbul's Bilgi University who is one of Turkey's foremost internet rights experts and advocates. Our email-based exchange is below:
1. How does the filtering system that was just started in Turkey differ
from the previously proposed -- and much criticized -- system?
It now becomes voluntary with two profiles. It was previously compulsory with four different profiles. There are some improvements but problems continue. The original Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) decision was subjected to a legal challenge at the Council of State, which is the highest administrative court in Turkey. Subsequent to strong criticism of the proposed filtering system, and the pressure of the legal action, the Turkish authorities decided to modify their decision in August 2011.
Still, the Alternatif Bilişim Derneği (Alternative Information Technologies
Association), a Turkish NGO, challenged the August decision and lodged a legal challenge with the Council of State on 04 November 2011.
2. Turkish officials have said this new system is voluntary. Is that actually so?
China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are asking you to trust them with your Internet.
Last week, the four countries proposed an Internet “code of conduct” at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Their document calls on signatories to curb “the dissemination of information that incites terrorism, secessionism, or extremism, or that undermines other countries’ political, economic, and social stability, as well as their spiritual and cultural environment.”
That makes sense coming from some of the most repressive Internet climates on the planet. Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders lists Uzbekistan and China as “internet enemies.” Tajikistan regularly blocks critical sites.
Uzbekistan launches its own version of Facebook, Muloqot, on September 1 with claims the new social networking site will be “a convenient and cheap communication platform” for Uzbekistan’s mushrooming legions of social networking addicts.
The name of the bilingual Uzbek-Russian site says it all: Muloqot means “dialogue” or “communication” in Uzbek, and the forum is being touted as cheaper-to-access than sites hosted on foreign servers, with the added bonus of offering an Uzbek-language interface.
So has Uzbekistan – which global watchdogs call an “internet enemy” and say ranks as one of the most repressive countries on earth – suddenly committed itself to freedom of information? Hardly, say critics: Muloqot is more likely just another way of controlling the flow of information.
Uzbek IT company Simple Networking Solutions, which operates the site, is promoting Muloqot as a “web-based project which helps people express themselves and find an audience.”
The company does not mention that the website can also help the government’s cyber-spies find people who are trying to express themselves too freely.
To open an account, Muloqot users must give an Uzbek cellphone number, providing an easy means of monitoring who is posting what. There is no option to sign up without an Uzbek number, reducing chances the system will be infiltrated with dangerous foreign ideas. And to register for an Uzbek cellphone number, of course, one must present a passport.
Since April, Internet users everywhere have been gripped by a bandwidth-hogging phenomenon: the bizarre Nyan Cat meme. And why not? Surely everybody (especially pre-teens and weary Central Asia correspondents) loves the idea of a flying digital cat ensconced in a giant pop tart radiating a space rainbow in its wake. All to the accompaniment of a cute ditty on a ten-hour loop, of course. (Warning: You will have to watch to the end for your "view" to be counted; over 740,000 others already have.)
Now, somebody has created an Uzbek variant complete with the cat wearing a puss-sized Uzbek traditional hat and wrapped inside a lepyoshka, the flat bread beloved of Central Asians. Also, the cat is patriotically emitting the colors of the national flag and flying over recognizable historical landmarks of Uzbekistan. The video is mercifully shorter that the original, and irritation levels will depend largely on how much Uzbek pop appeals.
There are already US- and Russian-themed versions out there, so will other Central Asian copycats follow? An Akhal-Teke horse with a watermelon for a body flying on a Turkmen carpet, repeating verses from Turkmenbashi’s Rukhnama for 15 hours, perhaps?