Uzbekistan Launches Its Own Facebook, Except It’s Not For Everyone
Ever since social networks have come under greater scrutiny for their role in the Arab Spring -- and indeed in the U.K. riots -- repressive governments have been scrambling to find ways to rein in the unruly kids and their social networks.
Shutdowns aren’t always good things (except in times of crisis) as they generate bad headlines, so instead there has been a push from some governments to create their own sanitized networks. A new social network called Muloqot is being launched in Uzbekistan in conjunction with the state telecom monopoly. Muloqot can be translated as “dialogue” or “conversation”.
This from the Central Asia Newswire:
The Muloqot (“Dialogue”) web site will be available starting September 1, to coincide with the country’s 20th anniversary of independence.
The social network “will create conditions...for the formation of high morals, for creation of spurs to successful development of modern knowledge and achievements of technical progress, with objective of realization of the idea of the comprehensively developed person,” BBC News on Friday reported Uzbek authorities as saying.
In recent years, many young Uzbeks have gravitated toward global social networks, such as Facebook or Odnoklassniki. A reported 350,000-400,000 people a day use Odnoklassniki, whereas 85,000 people in Uzbekistan have signed up for Facebook, which has become a place where Uzbek opposition and human rights groups are active.
So how will Muloqot work? To register you need an Uzbek mobile phone number (so fewer interfering foreigners). The service, which is in the Uzbek and Russian languages, then sends you a text message, which you have three days to respond to, otherwise your account will be deleted.
The usability is clean, easy to navigate, and with all the usual social-networking functionality: messaging, chat, pictures, music uploads etc. With over half of Uzbekistan's 7.7 million Internet users accessing through cell phones, the site is well-optimized for mobile.
Colleagues in RFE/RL's Uzbek Service managed to register on the first day and post RFE/RL content (blocked in Uzbekistan) to a general Wall (at that point there were only about 400 users). Within 15 minutes, however, their profiles were deleted. Another RFE/RL staffer posted some comments praising the president's daughter, Gulnara Karimova, and their profile has remained active.
But is it likely to catch on? A week after what seems to be a soft launch it has 1,700 users. Even in democracies, it's not always easy to get young people to sign on to government-led projects, especially when they know they will be under the watchful eyes of the authorities.
But as the director of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Alisher Sidikov, points out, one advantage Muloqot will have is that it benefits from the state telecom monopoly. Sidikov says the authorities can attract users with free, fast services, including generous email storage and music and movies download. Above all, with the site's sleek design and easy-to-use navigation, it looks like the government above all has understood that it needs to be competitive.
It is another manifestation of a broad trend I have followed on Tangled Web: the attempt to enclose the global commons of the Internet, often under the guise of protecting the moral health of the nation's youth. (Some background in this post, “Cyber-Westphalia And Its Disruptors”)
There are plenty of precedents for what the Uzbek government is trying to do here. China is the gold standard in offering state-sponsored local-language social-networking services. Last year, the Vietnamese authorities followed suit and tried a similar thing with go.vn, a government-sponsored alternative to Facebook, the only catch being that users have to log in with their full names and government-issued identity numbers.
Iran is more explicitly linking the greater controls with a moral crusade by attempting to set up a “Halal Internet,” supposedly a sanitized worldwide network with content adhering to Islamic principles. The purity of Islam is probably the least of their worries here, but rather their perception of the dangers of what they see as the American-led, Twitter-powered Arab Spring.
What most worries activists in Uzbekistan, though, is that the launch of Muloqot is merely a prelude to a ban of Facebook, which represents the global connected society the Karimov regime is so afraid of. If there was such a ban, the Uzbek authorities would hope that instead of dealing with thousands of angry social-media-starved young people, they would all just pipe down and head on over to Muloqot.