Staunton, June 23 – The number of Uzbeks using social networks grew by 40 percent every year between 2010 and 2014, the last year for which such statistics are available; and that trend, coming on top of the explosive growth in Internet use generally there, has overwhelmed Tashkent’s capacity to monitor and control the virtual world.
The number of Uzbeks connected to the Internet has expanded from 7500 in 2000 to 12,700,000 at the end of 2015, according to Inga Sikorskaya, the head of the School for Peace Making and Media Technologies in Central Asia and a former IWPR monitor of media practices in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (iwpr.net/ru/node/400972).
The overall growth in Internet use has been welcomed or even promoted by the Uzbek government which views the virtual network as a means of promoting economic development, she continues, but it has seen foreign news sites like the Uzbek services of RFE/RL, VOA, and the BBC as a threat and consistently blocked them.
But now the Uzbek authorities are worried about Uzbek use of social networks like the American Facebook and Russian Odnoklassniki. At present, according to Internet World Stats, some 450,000 Uzbeks are Facebook users and “no fewer than 900,000” of them are members of Odnoklassniki.
To counter that and in the hopes of preventing these networks from spreading independent views that could threaten the regime, Tashkent has “created no fewer than 38 social networks of its own,” Sikorskaya says, although she adds, “only eight of them are currently functioning, including Davra.uz, which was launched on June 1.
According to that site, it attracted 6,000 users in its first week, but “such local networks cannot compete” with international ones like Facebook and Odnoklassniki. The largest Uzbek social network is Muloqot.uz, which currently has some 170,000 users, just over a third of Facebook’s penetration and less than a fifth of Odnoklassniki’s.
The Uzbek government believes in can control these national social networks more easily because registration is required, and it is widely assumed that despite notices to the contrary, the authorities are able to gain access to that. But there is a bigger problem for the Uzbek state than that: the Uzbek social networks don’t perform the same role the international ones do.
The Uzbek networks are dominated by commercial advertising and appear to be attractive to Uzbeks as a place to order goods and services whereas the international sites encourage and promote discussions on a wide range of issues, including many that the Tashkent government does not want to see occur.
Tashkent began blocking independent news sites early on, but it did not recognize the threat to itself from national and regional social networks until 2011, Sikorskaya says, when discussions about the Arab spring began to appear on them. The authorities tried to control the situation by blocking portions of these sites and ultimately forcing operators to shut them down.
But with the rise of international social networks and the increasing sophistication of internet users more generally, Tashkent recognized that “simply blocking sits doesn’t lead to anything” and that it must employ the alternative strategy of promoting its own Uzbek social networks.
That is what it continues to do, but at the present time, it appears to be fighting a losing battle against Facebook and Odnoklassniki.