In the last 15 years, IT companies in Uzbekistan have developed dozens of domestic social media platforms in a bid to compete with foreign giants like Facebook and Twitter.
Not one has survived.
Undaunted by that track record, authorities in Uzbekistan, which routinely ranks toward the bottom of global internet freedom rankings, are now accepting bids from start-up companies to create yet another new national social network and messenger application.
Hopeful bidders have until October 1 to submit their proposals and then a year to get the project up and going, the Ministry of Innovative Development said in a statement this week.
This announcement of a call for the creation of a domestic social media resource comes just days after telecommunications authorities lifted a ban on Twitter, along with WeChat and Vkontakte. The efforts of censors to block access to those sites was officially justified as compliance with recently adopted legislation on protecting personal data.
By law, foreign IT companies providing services to Uzbekistan must place servers processing the information of Uzbek nationals inside the country. A change to the law laying down that rule was approved by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in January 2021 and came into effect a few months later.
The idea of creating a domestic social media resource is apparently motivated by similar concerns. The government’s development strategy blueprint for 2022-2026 states that the creation of localized social networks and instant messengers is aimed at “protecting the personal data of citizens.”
But as news website Daryo reported earlier this week, at least 32 such initiatives have come and gone in Uzbekistan over the years.
Highlights include Muloqot.uz, which was launched in 2011 and touted as an alternative to Facebook and Russia’s Odnoklassniki. In early 2014, the company launched the GAPim and Gap messengers, analogues of WhatsApp. In 2015, it was reported that 700,000 people were visiting the site every month.
And yet, by June 2018, Muloqot.uz was no more.
Another social network, Davra.uz, appeared in 2016 with support from what was then known as the Information Technology Development and Communications Ministry. At present, with its 22,000 registered users, the site is all but dead.
The desire to wean people off their dependence on foreign social media resources is unlikely to be only about personal data, however. Uzbek authorities have long evinced a deep suspicion about the dangerous potential of online content.
President Mirziyoyev once again raised concerns in that direction at a July get-together of Central Asian presidents in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan.
“The fresh challenge of increasing illegal activity on the internet deserves special focus. Today, these threats have no borders, they travel via mobile phone,” he said.
Mirziyoyev then alluded to a surge of political unrest in Uzbekistan’s autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan in July – a development that he appeared to link to internet-borne messaging. For weeks after the violence subsided, authorities cut off internet access to Karakalpakstan.
The intensity of the paranoia that was the trademark of the late president Islam Karimov, who died in 2016, is unlikely to make a comeback, however.
One memorable cultural artifact attesting to the Karimov regime’s dislike of social media was the 2013 film Odnoklassniki, produced by the state-run Uzbekfilm studios. The heroes of the movie are a group of young people who fall prey to a human trafficking ring because of their love of social media.