In Uzbekistan, responsibility for controlling the web begins at the cabinet level and ends with plainclothes police officers who physically 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 Uzbek Agency for Communications and Information (UzASCI). 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 (ISPs) are also involved, primarily by filtering content.
Rafal Rohozonski, 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 use lines provided by UzPAK to connect to the internet," said Rohozonski. "Several ISPs operate their own satellite dishes, but these dishes have to be located on property owned by UzInfoCom, a wholly owned subsidiary of UzASCI. The physical connection between their satellite dish, which is on property owned by UzInfoCom, and wherever the ISP is located has to be passed through channels which are owned by UzPAK.
Starting about a decade ago, an Israeli consulting firm assisted Uzbek government bodies in setting up security systems that enables 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 likes it's going back and forth, but it's actually being recorded by the security forces," Rohozonski said.
Uzbek officials cracked down in earnest on internet activity in late 2005, following the Andijan massacre. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. 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, said Rohozonski.
"Around 2000-2001, UzASCI asked UzSCINET to start experimenting with what they could do to block certain unwanted content, and as a result of that, UzSCINET started to develop what was the first content blocking system in Uzbekistan. 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," Rohozonski 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, Rohozonski said. "Both the security agency and UzASCI started taking a much more a 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 of 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. "In Uzbekistan you have filtering both at the center of the network, [where] they try to control it with tier 1 ISPs -- those that are most directly connected to the internet -- as well as filtering at the edges of the internet,
Deirdre Tynan is a freelance journalist who specializes in Central Asian affairs.