Authoritarian Uzbekistan is notorious for its tight grip on the media. But it's probably safe to assume that Tashkent knows what's been going on in northern Africa in recent months. Perhaps this is why the government is patching up a hole in its spotty control over access to information: mobile phone technology that allows users to view blocked Internet sites on cell phones and quickly distribute information via text message.
Russia’s RBC Daily reports that Uzbek regulators have demanded mobile operators notify the government about mass distributions of SMS messages with “suspicious content.” A source at the Uzbek Agency for Communications and Information, which regulates the wireless market, told RBC Daily that mobile operators would also have to switch their Internet networks off whenever authorities wish.
“In addition, operators controlling access to the Internet have been asked to watch activity on social networks and on the Internet in general,” a source at an Uzbek telecom operator told RBC Daily.
That may sound like business as usual. But until now, Internet users surfing the Web through their mobile phone browsers have been able to access otherwise blocked sites unimpeded.
The press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders has identified Uzbekistan as one of the world’s top 10 “Internet Enemies.” News websites like ferghana.ru, uznews.net, the BBC’s Uzbek service, and RFE/RL's Uzbek service, are blocked. Social media sites like LiveJournal – a blogging platform – MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Blogger and Flickr are accessible from time to time, but are easier to open on mobile phone browsers (as they were in Turkmenistan before the government booted out MTS, a Russian mobile services provider, in December).
Smartphones are taking over markets throughout Central Asia. But Tashkent is probably not eager to see how quickly its young, tech-savvy generation adopts the same mobile technology popular in Cairo and Tunis.