On November 3, Uzbek authorities restricted access to most social media sites and popular messaging applications it deemed in violation of personal data laws put into effect earlier this year. Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Moi Mir, Odnoklassniki, Telegram, and YouTube were added to the “register of violators” of the pertinent law, joining Twitter, TikTok, VKontakte, Skype, and WeChat, which have not been easily accessible in Uzbekistan (without the use of a VPN) since July.
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was soon informed, in the words of his press secretary, “about the unilateral, not fully thought out actions of Uzkomnazorat…”
Uzkomnazorat is the state communications regulator and its head, Golibsher Ziyaev, was swiftly fired. Sherzod Asadov, the president’s press secretary, promised access would be restored soon and on social media Uzbek users reported being able to access some, though not yet all, of the previously restricted sites.
In retrospect, the fatal error in the latest round of restrictions was probably in messing with access to Telegram, by far the most popular and widely used social media and messaging app in Uzbekistan.
At the center of this issue is the matter of control: specifically control of Uzbek user data.
In January 2021, Mirziyoyev signed into a law an amendment to the country’s personal data law, which obliged anyone processing the personal data of Uzbek citizens to physically store that data on Uzbek territory. The law was set to go into force in April and in May Uzkomnazorat said it had notified several social media networks, including VKontakte, Twitter, and WeChat, that they were in violation of the law.
On July 2, Uzkomnazorat said an unspecified group of social media networks had been added to the “register of violators” and access to their sites would be restricted. Users reported trouble accessing TikTok and Twitter, followed by VKontakte, Skype, and WeChat. The sites have been available via VPN; presumably that’s how Uzbek authorities have been continuing to use their official accounts on social media networks regular citizens aren’t allowed to access.
Uzbekistan is not alone in the world in attempting to exert control over citizen data. China has made the most strident efforts to strong-arm social media companies into storing data locally, lest they be shoved behind the Great Firewall. Various efforts at forcing data localization have emerged in India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and elsewhere in recent years as well. But, as Arindrajit Basu outlined in an article in January 2020, “With the exception of China (which has not altered its rigid data localization laws) the other three [India, Indonesia, Vietnam] have all reneged on their respective localization gambits, to some extent” as a result of concerted lobbying and geopolitical forces. Many of the targeted companies are based in the United States, but in the case of Uzbekistan, the targeted companies also include Russian (VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Moi Mir) and Chinese tech firms (WeChat and TikTok).
As recently as October 14, Uzkomnazorat held a virtual meeting with “relevant American companies” in the social media space specifically to address the matter of “compliance.” But the reality is that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube don’t have sufficient motivation to comply with Uzbek directives. The Uzbek market isn’t significant enough for them to do so, and the Uzbek government restricting access to sites its citizens have come to frequent only serves to make Tashkent look like a censor.
Uzbek authorities have pledged to investigate what happened.