From “parental care for the sons of the nation”, Uzbekistan

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Over the past 15 years, scores of Uzbek IT companies have developed dozens of their own social media platforms, tailored to what they thought local users wanted, in an attempt to compete with American tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter. However, none survived on the market. Now the Central Asian state’s central authorities have picked up on the idea and want to create an officially run social media platform from the highest level of the state. Of course, out of parental concern for the mental health and education of the younger generation, how else?

Undeterred by the dismal record of private initiatives in the past, the state authorities of Uzbekistan, a country relentlessly ranked last in the global ranking of internet freedom, announced that they are awaiting bids from start-ups to create a network of national social network, to come together with a messaging application, on the well-known model of Facebook, writes the portal Eurasia.net.

Potential bidders have until October 1 to submit their proposals, and then one year to put the project into operation, according to a press release from the Ministry of Innovative Development in Tashkent.

Out of care for the personal data of Uzbeks

The announcement of the creation of a domestic social media platform comes just days after national telecommunications regulators lifted the ban on Twitter (US), WeChat (Chinese) and Vkontakte (Russian). The authorities’ efforts to block the Uzbek public’s access to those platforms had been officially justified by the need to comply with recently adopted legislative norms on the protection of personal data.

Thus, according to the new law, foreign IT companies that provide services to Uzbekistan and the local population must place the servers that process the information of Uzbek citizens exclusively on the territory of the country. The law was promulgated by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev as early as January last year and came into effect a few months later.

The idea of ​​creating an internal social media platform is apparently motivated by similar concerns. The development strategy plan adopted by the Uzbek government for the period 2022-2026 explicitly provides for the creation of social networking platforms and localized instant messaging services, with the aim of “protecting citizens’ personal data”.

According to the Uzbek news site Daryo, there have been at least 32 such initiatives in Uzbekistan over the years, but all have failed, although some of them looked promising.

Muloqot.uz was launched in 2011 and presented as an alternative to Facebook and Odnoklassniki, a Russian social media platform. In early 2014, the company also launched messaging services GAPim and Gap, counterparts of WhatsApp. In 2015, the platform’s audience numbered 700,000 unique users every month. In June 2018, Muloqot.uz ceased to exist.

Another social network, Davra.uz, appeared in 2016 with the support of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology Development. It currently has barely 22,000 registered users, but the site is practically clinically dead.

The recent attempted revolution has put a lid on it

However, the official arguments related to the protection of personal data are not very convincing. Moreover, the Uzbek authorities have long demonstrated a deeply suspicious behavior regarding the dangerous potential of online content.

President Mirziyoyev reiterated his concerns in this regard at a recent July meeting of the presidents of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan.

“The recent challenges related to the growth of illegal activities on the Internet deserve special attention. Today, these threats have no borders, because they travel even through the mobile phone,” he said.

Mirziyoyev was referring to the wave of political unrest that swept the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, which occupies the northwestern third of Uzbekistan, in July. The attempted “revolution” was attributed by the central authorities in Tashkent to the use of the Internet by the participants in the protests, which were organized through online messages. For several weeks, even after the violence stopped, the authorities cut off Internet access in the territory of the Republic of Karakalpakstan.

However, the intensity of anti-online paranoia peaked under former president Islam Karimov, who died in 2016, but is now unlikely to return to that level today.

As evidence of the fierce antipathy of the Karimov regime to social networks was the film Odnoklassniki, made in 2013 by the state studios Uzbekfilm. In short, a group of young people fall prey to a human trafficking network, because of the passion with which they use social networks.