Central Asian governments cracking down on Internet because it is a powerful way to share information
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“The internet is like the market square, a public space – people should be allowed to say their views, they should be able to voice non-violent criticism of politicians and the authorities without fear of being persecuted for doing so” HRW official noted.
According to him, the crackdown on the internet could be seen as being a new frontier by governments to restrict activism in Central Asia. “On the other hand, it’s not really very new. We should see this as a process, which has been going on for many years,” Mr. Williamson said.
Internet freedom is extremely low and the restrictions are very tough, he noted, adding that the developments are worsening, in the context of the internet being a very important vehicle for free speech and human rights organizing.
He has also noted there is still very widespread website blocking. Concerning Tajikistan, Williamson noted that there was widespread blocking of independent media, international human rights organizations and opposition parties in the country. The opposition organizations’ information is not available within Tajikistan; so, there is still widespread blocking of internet sites, HRW official said.
In terms of new targets, he noted that the spreading of false information, hate speech were “all unfortunately widespread on the internet and those can also be used to target human rights activists.”
Williamson highlighted the threats to journalists through attacks on the internet, particularly women journalists in the Central Asian region.
Concerning the problem of control by the authorities in the Central Asian countries of the content that comes from abroad, HRW official noted that that was an important aspect, and he highlighted this development in Kazakhstan. “The Kazakh authorities are demanding foreign social media organizations to have a local presence – a local registered office. And by doing that, they have more opportunity to require those companies say Google or Facebook to take down comments or posts they see as politically problematic,” said he. “So, they’re trying to increase their influence over such companies by passing this legislation. We find that extremely worrying because it sets a trend whereby these companies will be more under the influence of authorities such as in Kazakhstan.”
Another way of dealing with foreign content coming into countries is throttling the internet – technically limiting how much capacity internet providers have and how much access users can have to the internet. According to him, that happens also in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in the region. People simply cannot load pages or download videos and that’s a very common technical method to limit access to online information.