Neither Here Nor There: Turkmenistan’s Digital Doldrums

Turkmenistan is slowly emerging from decades of darkness. President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov has vowed to modernize the country by encouraging the uptake of new technology for economic development and more efficient governance. Hundreds of thousands of Turkmen citizens are now online. However, the country faces serious challenges as it prepares to go digital. Infrastructure is primitive, and public access is fully controlled by a state-owned monopoly. Slow speeds, exorbitant pricing, and technological illiteracy all constitute major hurdles. A new study from the SecDev Group highlights the ambivalent policies and practices that have left Turkmenistan mired in the digital doldrums, torn between its desire to join the worldwide web and its compulsion to control cyberspace.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

The internet presents a novel challenge for Turkmen authorities. On the one hand, the government is keen to promote internet expansion for develop- ment; on the other, officials are increasingly wary of its potential as an outlet for dissent.

Positive steps have been taken. Officials have pledged to improve access, infrastructure and services, establish e-government and provide internet resources in education. They have also authorized internet cafés and con- nections for private citizens.

Internet uptake remains limited. Official estimates stand at a mere 2.2%. Access is minimal outside major urban centres. Private internet connections are extremely expensive and slow. The state’s 15 internet cafés are closely monitored, and offer slow connections.

Mobile phones, used by some 63% of the population, are important points of access, but uptake has been stymied. Unofficial estimates place mobile in- ternet access penetration at 14% (700,000 users). Mobile access is cheaper and faster than fixed-line service, but suffered a significant setback when the government revoked the licence for MTS, a major Russian mobile provider. The licence was restored in August 2012, but overall access remains con- strained.

Demand for internet access appears to be robust. Indications are found in the rapid rise in internet use, the striking growth in mobile subscriptions, popular unrest over a lack of new mobile subscriptions, and high demand at foreign- sponsored internet sites (which provide fast and powerful satellite connections).

Until recently, the only licensed Internet Service Provider was state-run TurkmenTelekom. The state’s de facto monopoly hinders progress, with slow speeds and astronomical prices for access. It also ensures that officials can control and monitor how citizens use the internet.

Authorities control cyberspace through content-blocking, surveillance, and severe penalties. Blocking is selective and inconsistent. Many, but not all, opposition sites are blocked, as are independent news sites that carry local news and various social media sites. At the same time, major news sites, social media and a popular commercial circumvention solution remain uncensored and available.

Filtering is applied through straightforward IP and domain blacklists. Technical testing did not reveal any instances of tampering with the Domain Name System. Users are aware the government is potentially watching every online move; journalists are closely tracked. There is compelling anecdotal evidence of harsh reprisals against users who transgress government dictates.

Netizens cope by limiting their activities and views. Turkmen cyberspace is mostly social. Netizens use the internet primarily to keep in touch with friends and share information. International platforms are largely irrelevant, but Russian social networks are popular.

Blogging is discouraged but legal. So far, Turkmen blog mostly for fun. Blogging is growing in popularity, although many hosting sites are blocked. Political blogs are effectively non-existent. Most blogs share information and views on innocu- ous topics.

Mild online dissent appears to be somewhat tolerated. Evidence suggests users have expressed mild political opinions online without repercussions. However, few people risk posting serious political criticisms online.

Censored information is sometimes shared, despite the risks. Three common methods include: emailing attachments that contain forbidden information to trusted friends; posting translated news to Turkmen chat sites; using microblogs.

News and information are still derived mainly from television. Many indepen- dent news websites are blocked and slow speeds make routine access onerous.

Most users are unaware of circumvention tools. Most users know the state blocks some sites and monitors online posts, but few know of circumvention tools or how to use them.

At the moment, there is no evidence that officials have targeted those citizens who do use circumvention tools.

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This report was prepared by analysts from The SecDev Group, based on research conducted between October 2011 and September 2012. The SecDev Group employs a mixed methodology that includes qualitative, quantitative, technical, and ethnographic research methods. The report benefited from research and information conducted by a number of public research organizations. These include, but are not limited to, the OpenNet Initiative, Freedom House, Reporters without Borders, and Psiphon Inc.

This report was commissioned and financially supported by the Open Society Foundations. The Open Society Foundations’ activities in Eurasia and Turkmenistan provide support for groups such as SecDev that are conducting research into democratic transitions in the societies and countries of the former Soviet Union. Working with local communities in more than 100 countries, the Open Society Foundations support justice and human rights, freedom of expression, public health, and education, and help build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens. Please see the OSF website at http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/.