Internet Use at Risk in Ex-Soviet Bloc

By signing a new media law, the Kazakh leader has ensured that the most serious dispute so far over freedom of the Internet in the post-Soviet space will carry on.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe urged President Nursultan Nazarbaev to veto the law amended by the country's parliament in June, arguing that the law could restrict Internet freedom and freedom of expression. A similar call was issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, in a 25 June statement, said the new law would be a step back in the democratization of Kazakhstan's media governance. Haraszti also argued that the law contravenes OSCE commitments and international standards. Kazakhstan will chair the OSCE in 2010.

Nazarbaev signed the amendments into law earlier this month. This latest clash between post-Soviet authorities and defenders of press and Internet freedom is unlikely to be the last, since Internet adversaries are multiplying, especially in countries plagued by political conflicts where the Internet becomes the last source of free information and communication. China clamped down on the Internet in the capital of the Xinjiang region earlier this month in the hope of stemming the flow of information about ethnic unrest that took at least 156 lives. "We cut Internet connection in some areas of Urumqi in order to quench the riot quickly and prevent violence from spreading to other places," the city's Communist Party head, Li Zhi, said. Earlier, Iranian authorities restricted Internet access during the protests over the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

As for Russia, the authorities started paying attention to the Internet after the Ukrainian "Orange Revolution" five years ago. Until then the Web had been the beloved child of the Vladimir Putin administration and its chief spin doctor, Gleb Pavlovsky, who created scores of informational websites aimed at promoting the alleged achievements of the Russian president. Later, however, the Kremlin watched in dismay as Ukrainian revolutionaries found strong support for their ideas among Web users.

The Ukrainian Web domain became the leading source of information for the second—Georgian—"color" revolution in the former Soviet space as well. By now the Kremlin was seriously frightened that something similar might happen in Russia. Rather than using technological means to restrict access by shutting down networks or putting pressure on providers (Internet service in Russia is predominately a private business), the authorities began instead to criminalize Internet users, and provisions for criminal punishment for libel and insult were supplemented a few years ago by a new type of crime: encouraging extremism or extremist actions.

Internet users run afoul of the Russian authorities almost every month. Users are sued, fined, and more: Boris Stomakhin, a Moscow operator of Chechen separatist websites, has spent the last three years in jail on a charge of extremism. The authorities have chosen the easiest and the simplest weapon against Internet users: fear.

In China and Iran the use of state resources to stem the flow of information on the Web is justified by the alleged threat of Western subversion of their regimes. The post-Soviet countries, besides that, can point to an actual example where the Internet helped to overthrow a political system in Ukraine.

But the battle over the Internet is just starting. In Kyrgyzstan, with the campaign for this week's presidential election about to begin, the government introduced a bill that would consider websites "informational mass media" along with newspapers, TV, radio, and news wires, just like in Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan leads the way in Central Asia and indeed among most of the post-Soviet countries in terms of sheer volume of new Internet-based initiatives; new portals and blogs open daily, and the future of the Internet is actively debated.

Similar cyber-wars likely lie in store for Tajikistan. Several months ago the country's president, Emomali Rakhmon, publicly called harmful sites that publish "slander" about Tajikistan, saying, "In recent years a number of websites have engaged in a conscious and malicious campaign aimed against Tajikistan. Clearly, certain parties are not pleased with the independence of the Tajik state and with our multi-vector political course."

Meanwhile, however, the Internet is quickly growing in popularity in this poorest of all Central Asian countries. Radio Liberty reports that there are currently more than a half-million Internet users in Tajikistan, compared with data compiled by market researchers J'son & Partners Central Asia showing that there are only 7,000 Internet users in Turkmenistan.

However, for Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek users, as for most users around the globe, the Internet is first of all a big directory, a convenient means to send messages and check prices or flights and train schedules. The Web in these countries is not yet politicized; it functions mainly as a domestic utility and a quick reference. But in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan the Internet is fast becoming a significant "player" in political combat. This is why the authorities are suddenly paying so much attention to it and seeking to restrict its influence.

In mid-June Kyrgyz Internet users expressed concern over the authorities' stated intention to introduce SORM e-mail screening technology. Manufactured in Russia, the system allows real-time copying of all traffic for monitoring by secret services. SORM has operated in Russia since the mid-1990s, but no one knows the scope of traffic screening by the authorities.

Clearly, introduction of such technology in Kyrgyzstan must be credited to Russia, along with the legislative initiative in Kazakhstan's example. Kyrgyz civil society is quite active, and it is important for the incumbent president, Kurmanbek Bakiev (who will most likely be re-elected this week), to maintain his influence on the population.

The epidemic is spreading. In June Aynur Galiyeva, a member of the Azerbaijani parliament, proposed a new government agency to regulate the Internet. "Establishing this structure is necessary given that the Internet regularly carries information that negatively affects people, especially children," she said. She cited photos of a terrorist attack in Baku as one example.

All these initiatives advanced by the governments of post-Soviet countries combine intent to suppress an unrestricted information source with sheer cynicism. When they classify websites as a mass medium similar to newspapers, there is only one reason: to be able to apply criminal law to Web users. In other words, to gain an opportunity to lawfully harass dissenters. It brings to mind the old Soviet days when readers of samizdat were prosecuted as hooligans or hard-currency profiteers.

Regrettably, there is little visible opposition at this stage of the combat. Only in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have human rights activists and NGOs protested against toughening of Internet regulations. In other countries society is watching in silence.