Uzbekistan Launches Facebook Knock-Off to Aid Cyber-Snooping?
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. The launch of Muloqot has sparked speculation that Tashkent, spooked by the hype about “Twitter revolutions” in the Middle East, has found another means to clamp down on an already fiercely controlled media. All press outlets are tightly censored within the country, and foreign websites – including EurasiaNet.org – that air criticism of the regime are blocked. So Muloqot looks like a bid to lure Uzbekistan’s 7.7 million Internet users away from foreign social networking sites such as Facebook (which, according to the 12.uz news site, has 85,000 users from Uzbekistan) and Russia’s Odnoklassniki (which has up to 400,000 hits a day from the country).Its name notwithstanding, Muloqot appears just one more way of battening down the hatches against the outside world rather than furthering dialogue with it.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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