Users in Tajikistan of the popular messaging app Viber have reported they are no longer able to use the program for voice calls — apparently as a result of action from telecommunications regulators.
A source at one local mobile telecommunications company told Eurasianet on January 4 that as of the start of this year, all internet traffic is required to pass through infrastructure owned by government-run Tajiktelecom. Accordingly, blocking online resources no longer requires cooperation from individual internet service providers, since Tajiktelecom is in effect in charge of the spigot.
The change means that the government can — and already seems to be willing to — cut off access to websites and online services at will.
This all dates back to a 2016 government decree requiring all internet data to be filtered through a largely hypothetical system known as the Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center, or EKTs in its Russian language acronym. This system purportedly funnels any type of telecommunications-based exchange — be it by phone or Internet — through a powerful computer as a security measure.
There is substantial anecdotal evidence to suggest this piece of equipment does not in fact exist, but the law essentially bars internet providers from seeking to shop around for cheaper internet, such as from neighboring Kyrgyzstan. It is now Tajiktelecom or nothing. Tajiktelecom is run by the telecommunications regulator, which is headed by a relative by marriage of President Emomali Rahmon.
If the authorities go further and find a way to block all voice communication through mobile apps and next-generation-network technology not directly under their control, phone bills for many Tajiks wishing to keep in touch with relatives abroad will almost certainly soar. The government stands to generate considerable revenue as expensive phone calls imply more taxes. Moreover, since Tajiktelecom is the only ultimate provider of internet data in town, industry insiders anticipate a more than twofold increase in the prices charged for bandwidth to retail-level internet service providers. The final cost will inevitably be borne by the customers.
Viber has been main voice-based communication app hit so far — that is significant as this is the most popular program of its type in Tajikistan. Skype users have also registered difficulties.
Telecommunications regulators justify their clampdown on messaging apps on the grounds that this type of communication is not subject to scrutiny and therefore poses a threat to national security.