Internet monitors say the Karimov regime combines old and new methods to control websites. From EurasiaNet. by Deirdre Tynan 24 July 2008
Responsibility for controlling the web in Uzbekistan begins at the cabinet level and ends with plainclothes police officers who intimidate Internet café owners and customers.
Overseeing efforts to censor the web is Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Aripov, who is also director general of the Agency for Communications and Information. This agency in turn exerts control over other key government bodies, including Uzbek Telecom, UzPAK, and UzInfoCom, which collectively control the Internet’s infrastructure inside the country. Internet service providers are also involved, primarily by filtering content.
Rafal Rohozinski, an investigator for the OpenNet Initiative, said UzPAK, a little-known state enterprise swallowed up in 2005 by UzNet, a subsidiary of Uzbek Telecom, is central to how the government monitors web traffic. "There is a requirement that all ISPs [Internet service providers] use lines provided by UzPAK to connect to the Internet," said Rohozonski, whose organization monitors Internet filtering and surveillance. Several ISPs operate their own satellite dishes, but these dishes have to be located on property owned by UzInfoCom, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Agency for Communications and Information, known as UzASCI. The physical connection between their satellite dish, which is on property owned by UzInfoCom, and wherever the service provider is located has to be passed through channels which are owned by UzPAK.
Starting about a decade ago, an Israeli consulting firm assisted the Uzbek government in setting up security systems that enable authorities to closely monitor who is using the web and how they are using it. “Each channel that goes through UzPAK can be duplicated, so normal traffic looks like it's going back and forth, but it's actually being recorded by the security forces," Rohozinski said.
Uzbek officials cracked down in earnest on Internet activity in 2005, following the Andijan massacre. Prior to that date, President Islam Karimov's associates used Internet censorship as a way to amass fortunes, while at the same time using the internationally funded academic and research network UzSciNet as a testing ground for filtering techniques they would perfect over the coming years, Rohozinski said.
As early as 2000, the Agency for Communications and Information and the academic research network began experiments with ways to interfere with the Internet, Rohozonski said, leading to the development of the country’s first blocking system. “The system worked well enough, or was seen to be impressive enough, that the government through the SNB [state security service] started pushing it out to other ISPs," he said.
"What's interesting is that from 2002 to at least 2006 filtering was very inconsistent,” Rohozinski continued. “You had some ISPs that blocked the full list while others had varying levels of filtering, including one that I can't name that had virtually no filtering on it whatsoever. When we did a little investigation as to why that was the case, we found that the ISP was owned by someone very personally close to Karimov. It was almost like a license to print money as it was the best ISP with the least filtering and popular because of that."
Political expediency became more important than financial concerns after Andijan, Rohozinski said. "Both the security agency and UzASCI started taking a much more controlling look at the Internet itself,” he said. “From Andijan onwards, we see a consistent pattern of filtering across ISPs, where the sites that are blocked are updated, or the lists of sites that are blocked are updated on a regular basis – and the monitoring of that is quite severe."
Uzbekistan, which consistently ranks near the bottom on free media and press surveys, also has a dedicated Center for Monitoring Mass Communications for violations of Uzbek laws and cultural norms. Separate monitoring and enforcement departments also exist within the Interior Ministry and SNB.
The government appears to rely on Internet café operators to monitor their customers.
"A colleague of ours went into a cyber café in Tashkent and tried to get on to a blocked website,” Rohozinski said. “He could get on to the first page but when he went to click through it just wouldn't load, so after about five minutes of trying went to leave. But the person who was running the Internet café was being very coy and not wanting to let him go. Within five minutes a non-uniformed member of the security forces came and started interrogating him – 'Why were you looking at this, why were you trying to get to it?' Fortunately, our colleague had a diplomatic passport, [and] he got off. But it is clear there was collusion between the owner of the café and the local security forces."
Predictably, censorship has had a chilling effect on independent media, with most either being shut down, or forced to relocate their operations abroad. Bloggers too have run into trouble, as have international media.
Much of the government’s energy is devoted to suppressing homegrown and regional news media such as Ferghana.ru and Uznews.net. Galima Bukharbaeva, the exiled editor of Uznews.net who now lives and works in Germany, said, " In Uzbekistan, it's all about fighting against interior or domestic threats: journalists, human rights activists, anyone who can expose the government is a target.”
Bukharbaeva is one of a band of web activists who are behind a campaign designed to raise awareness about the Uzbek government’s repressive practices. The main pages of participating news websites, including Uznews.net and Ferghana.ru, feature an imitation passport stamp that reads “Banned in Uzbekistan.”
Bukharbaeva admitted that the web publicity campaign was unlikely to shame Uzbek authorities into easing access to the Internet. Nevertheless, the undertaking can have tangible benefits, she said. “What we want to do is show the extent of the restrictions, and that people are being denied their rights to free access,” she said. “And also when someone does look at these websites, we want to remind them that they can't do this in Uzbekistan, and at least we create some kind of embarrassment for the government."