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Web Use Spirals in Uzbekistan Despite Curbs

By News Briefing Central Asia

The sheer pace of technological advance meant that even in heavily-censored Uzbekistan, internet use experienced something of a boom in 2011.

The state communications agency reported that 7.9 million of Uzbekistan’s 28 million or so people were registered as internet users as of the end of 2011. One in five had mobile internet access, and 500,000 had signed up in the previous 12 months.

Much of the traffic is to general-interest and entertainment websites, but interest in social networking facilities like Facebook and Twitter is rising fast. A local version called Muloqot.uz was launched in September and is gaining ground.

According to Alexander Suchkov, editor-in-chief of the Infocom web magazine based in Tashkent, many users are putting the internet

"Numerous blogs have appeared… in which young people talk about modern Uzbekistan. I know these young enthusiasts, and they obviously want to change things," he said. "The internet made significant progress in Uzbekistan in 2011, and we can see it really has a good future.".

The Uzbek authorities block many foreign news sources that cover the country, including RFE/RL, Voice of America and IWPR, but determined users are still able to find ways round these controls.

The scope for open discussion on websites based in Uzbekistan remains severely limited. The arbuz.com web forum was forced to close down in December after 13 years in existence. Its owners said they were acting in the interests of users’ safety.

Arbuz.com had become a place where controversial issues could be aired. After violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, over a million messages were posted on the site, many of them criticising Tashkent for failing to react more robustly.

The authorities were particularly shaken when local users started discussing the unrest taking place in the Middle East and North Africa in the spring of 2011. The security service made a number of arrests after tracking down the IP addresses of those who posted comments.

Speed and cost remain obstacles to greater internet use. The former has improved over the last year, although connection speeds remain lower than in either Kazakstan or Kyrgyzstan. Access is still relatively pricy, at 25 US dollars a month for one of the more popular customer plans, and a dollar an hour at internet cafes.

This article was produced as part of IWPR's News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

If you would like to comment or ask a question about this story, please contact our Central Asia editorial team at feedback.ca@iwpr.net.