Anybody who imagined authorities in Tajikistan had run out of ways to censor the internet needs to think again.
As of this week, Zoom teleconferencing software, which has become an essential go-to for remote business meetings, stopped functioning.
Experts speculate, since officials often refrain from divulging their motivations for blocking websites, that this may be linked to recently adopted provisions on taxing software companies providing services to clients inside Tajikistan.
Zoom users are able to circumvent the block, however, if they use VPN proxy services.
Last week, it was Gmail, Instagram and Facebook that became unavailable for two days. A number of VPN services also stopped working. Even now, access to Gmail is only guaranteed by means of a VPN.
The State Telecommunications Service denies it is behind the blocking of any social networking sites. This is almost certainly a lie.
But while this kind of censorship has previously been politically motivated, it appears the cause this time is of a more pecuniary nature.
Tajikistan last year adopted a so-called Google Tax, which is designed to compel companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Booking.com and others to pay taxes inside Tajikistan. Under the provisions of the legislation, the companies are now required to register with Tajik tax authorities and pay 18 percent sales tax on any services provided in the country.
News website Your.tj has cited the Tax Committee as forecasting that, “according to very conservative estimates, the approximate revenue to the budget from this [tax on virtual services] will be 100-200,000 euros ($122-243,000) per month.”
A tax expert contacted by Eurasianet cast doubt on this figure, however, and referred to data that shows that 93 percent of bank cardholders use their cards to withdraw cash. Only 7 percent use them for online transactions, the Dushanbe-based specialist told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity.
“Based on these figures, we can say that the monthly income to the budget will be no more than 10,000 euros. Tajiks have not yet developed a culture of purchasing services and entertainment online. Netflix, for example. In Europe, every second person has a subscription to this resource. In Tajikistan, I have not heard of anybody having a subscription,” the expert said.
Since the likelihood of software giants bothering to register with Tajik tax authorities looks dim, websites wishing to placate the government may refrain from running ads in the Tajik internet space. If that fails, internet users will find themselves spending more time offline.