The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Central Asian leaders want to tighten grip on social media. Russia’s playbook blazes the trail.

Journalists work in a newsroom of KUN.UZ online media in Tashkent on Oct. 20. (Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty Images)

The messaging app Telegram, especially popular in former Soviet republics, was blocked along with Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and others on Wednesday over a new law demanding local storage of data.

Social media users were furious, and the government quickly backtracked. In a message posted, fittingly on Telegram, the president’s spokesman said the actions of the country’s Internet regulator were “ill thought out.” Access to social networks was soon restored.

But the incident reflects a trend among Central Asian countries testing how far they can go to restrict Internet freedoms. Their fight with Big Tech comes as Central Asian governments increasingly balk at Western influence and instead take their cues from powers such as China, which is investing heavily in the region.

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Central Asia is also following the playbook of traditional ally Russia on Internet controls.

Like Moscow — as its own censorship efforts are ramping up — the Central Asian countries are having to tread carefully for fear of public backlash. Russia has routinely fined tech giants for refusing to remove what the country has branded banned content, but officials have so far been hesitant to fully blacklist popular networks such as YouTube.

One such Russian effort, an attempted block of Telegram, ultimately ended in embarrassment for the Kremlin. The service continued to work, and prominent government officials were among the people still using it. In March, Russia’s Internet regulator opted for a slowdown of Twitter, but the stakes were lower because Twitter isn’t popular in Russia.

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According to the Internet freedom scores from Freedom House, a pro-democracy think tank, both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are considered “not free.” Two other Central Asian countries, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, are not ranked at all, but Freedom House pointed out that both have used “wholesale blackouts” of news portals and social media platforms to suppress potential anti-government chatter. Only Kyrgyzstan, among the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, is ranked “partly free” for Internet openness.

“The rules of the game are largely set by Moscow,” said Arkady Dubnov, a political analyst and expert on Central Asia.

“The goals are also common: to prevent the existing vertical of power from being shaken, which, as the Russian leadership believes, can be achieved mainly among young people through the extremely popular social networks and messengers,” he added.

In September, Apple and Google removed an opposition voting app from their online stores in Russia, just as balloting began in the parliamentary election.

The app, built by associates of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was intended to help Russian voters opposed to President Vladimir Putin cast ballots in a way that would prevent splitting opposition support and handing victory to Putin. But Roskomnadzor, the Russian censorship agency, accused Apple and Google of meddling in Russia’s political affairs by allowing voters to download the app and demanded that it be removed from their online stores.

Russian authorities were able to pressure the companies by threatening to prosecute their local employees.

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Digital rights activists in Kazakhstan feared the country was trying to copy that method when the parliament’s ruling party in September pushed a draft law that would require foreign tech companies to set up local offices or risk being blocked.

Though the bill was framed as a child-protection measure and a way to curb cyberbullying, activists depict it as an effort to limit free speech and silence criticism of the government.

“Unfortunately, we are between two Big Brothers,” said Ruslan Dairbekov, director of the Digital Rights Center in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

“From one brother, China, there is the export of technologies, like digital surveillance tools. And from the other brother, Russia, which is a big, huge actor in our region, there is the export of legal approaches. It’s like a model.”

More than 10,000 people have signed a petition that said Kazakhstan’s law “would damage Kazakhstan’s international reputation and undermine the country’s sociopolitical development.”

Then last week, the Kazakh government published what it said was a “joint statement” with Facebook “to cooperate closely on harmful content.” The Kazakhstan statement further said Facebook, now known as Meta, had given Kazakh authorities “direct and exclusive access to Facebook’s ‘Content Reporting System’ which can help the government report content that may violate Facebook’s global content policy and the local laws of Kazakhstan.”

But that statement was apparently released independent of Facebook. Meta spokesman Ben McConaghy said in an email that the company has “a dedicated online channel for governments around the world to report content to us that they believe violates local law.”

“We follow a consistent global process to assess individual requests — independent from any government — in line with Facebook’s policies, local laws and international human rights standards,” he added. “This process is the same in Kazakhstan as it is for other countries around the world.”

Dairbekov said the public’s negative reaction to the bill as well as the government hailing its deal with Facebook — confusion notwithstanding — could doom the draft law.

The Kremlin is notorious for global meddling online. But controlling cyberspace at home has been trickier.

In Uzbekistan, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in January approved legislation that mandated tech companies store Uzbek users’ personal data in the country.

That prompted the country’s Internet regulator to block Telegram last week. The law was a copycat from Russia, which first used it as a basis for fining Google more than $40,000 in July.

Though Uzbekistan previously restricted access to Skype, Twitter, TikTok and Russian social media VKontakte, blocking those sites didn’t spark the same outcry as the interruption to Telegram’s service. In a country of about 34 million, Telegram is used by 18 million people, according to Madina Tursonova, a media lawyer.

Mirziyoyev’s press secretary said in a statement on Telegram that the head of Uzbekistan’s Internet regulator was fired for “erroneous and uncoordinated actions.”

But while Uzbekistan appeared to enter an era of more openness in society after the death of totalitarian leader Islam Karimov in 2016, Tursonova said that “the situation with freedom of speech and media in Uzbekistan is assessed as difficult.”

“These actions by the authorities have raised doubts about the truthfulness of the government and presidential statements that the Internet and social networks will not be blocked,” she added.

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