Uzbekistan: Internet and Facebook Usage Surge
Socialbakers, the social media analyzers, reports a surge of Facebook use in Uzbekistan.
While Facebook penetration in Uzbekistan is only a tiny 0.38% of the country's population and 2.26% of Internet users, usage grew by more than 23,480 in the last 6 months to a total number of 105,920. A particular jump is visible just in the last month. (To keep it in perspective, this figure is higher than Chad but lower than Guinea.)
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) has recently described a "boom" in Internet use in Uzbekistan, despite all the government's blockages.
The state communications agency reports that 7.9 million of Uzbekistan's 28 million people have Internet access. One in five has mobile Internet access, with 500,000 registered in the last year.
Alexander Suchkov, editor-in-chief of the Infocom web magazine based in Tashkent told IWPR, "Numerous blogs have appeared… in which young people talk about modern Uzbekistan. I know these young enthusiasts, and they obviously want to change things."
Some observers feared that a hoax perpetrated through social media last month involving a false claim of a young girl's suicide following police detention might dampen Internet usage.
But given the lack of penetration of the Internet and blocking of alternative sites like fergananews.com, it's not clear if many Uzbek Internet users even knew about the story.
There's a tendency to look at a surge in numbers like this hopefully, as perhaps an indication of the "Arab Spring" that has proved so elusive in Central Asia.
Perhaps, as Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, has theorized -- while acknowledging some real setbacks now in places like Egypt -- if a critical mass of people begin to share their cute cat pictures and if the government cuts off access to sharing sites like Youtube, eventually Internet users might jump the synapse to sharing reports of the regime's abuses and become active in opposing authoritarian governments.
Social media tools aren't catalysts by themselves, however, without other factors like pre-existing independent organizations and social solidarity. Once you have your cat picture in one window and a picture of victims of police torture in the other window, then what? Protest to the Interior Ministry, which might be savvy enough to go on Twitter with its version of events, too? Or risk getting up out of your chair to brave billy clubs on the square?
There's a simpler answer than any brewing spring for why so many people are getting online in Uzbekistan: the prices have gone way down. As the US Embassy in Tashkent noted, tariffs for Internet providers dropped 60 percent in the last year. That means the Internet has become a lot cheaper and faster for some people, although in a country with a minimum monthly wage of $22, it is still prohibitively expensive for most
Evidently the cost breaks have been passed along, as Ucell, for example, offers a new Facebook plan with a 10-cent activation fee and 10 cents a day unlimited use.