On August 1, Uzbekistan’s Information and Mass Media Agency announced that Twitter, WeChat, and Vkontakte had been unblocked in the country. The agency did not clarify why the three sites had been unblocked, but commented in its Telegram post announcing the change that “blocking only harms development.”
TikTok remains restricted, with the agency noting in its announcement that it is in ongoing discussion with the platform.
The blocking and unblocking of certain platforms stems from a data localization law signed in January 2021, which went into effect in April last year. The law mandates that the personal data of Uzbekistan’s citizens be processed and stored “on technical means physically located on the territory of Uzbekistan.”
Uzbekistan’s law mirrored regulations in Russia, which issued fines to Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp in August 2021 for not complying. Facebook remained accessible in Russia until March 2022, when Moscow cut off access on account of the social media giant heeding European requests to block some Russian content.
The first signs of implementation of Uzbekistan’s data localization law came in July 2021, when access to Skype, Twitter, WeChat, and Vkontakte was restricted given that the companies had not complied with the new law. In November 2021, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Moi Mir, Odnoklassniki, Telegram, and YouTube were also blocked. Losing easy access to this later group generated a fierce outcry. In particular, the block on Telegram was especially surprising for Uzbeks, given that everyone from media figures to government agencies to businesses to average citizens use the Russian messaging platform.
In the immediate aftermath of the November 2021 blocks, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev criticized and fired Information Technologies and Communications Minister Shuhrat Sodiqov, adviser Olimjon Umarov, and Golibsher Ziyaev, chief of the Uzkomnazorat media regulator. The blocks on Telegram, Facebook, Odnoklassniki, and YouTube were quickly rescinded last November, though restrictions on Twitter, WeChat, and Vkontakte remained in place until the recent announcement.
Ironically, Uzbek officials have consistently used the blocked platforms, including Twitter, as have Uzbek citizens tech savvy enough to set up a VPN. What motivated the change of policy is unclear (though Eurasianet cited local commentators pointing to presidential administration personnel changes).
None of the targeted platforms has established servers in Uzbekistan in order to comply with the law. As I wrote in November 2021: “…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.”
On the one hand, the lifting of restrictions on popular social media sites is a good thing when it comes to free access to information for people in Uzbekistan. On the other, the data localization law remains on the books and can ostensibly be cited as the rationale for blocking various platforms in the future.