I had the pleasure last week of moderating two sessions during the Registan Conference in Arlington, one on social media uses in Central Asia. The internet and social media have varying degrees of presence across Central Asia, but in every country their usage is growing. In almost every country in the region usage is monitored, and in some cases outright restricted, indicating that however low connectivity rates are compared to the West, authorities in Central Asia understand that the internet and social media constitute a powerful tool for mobilization and the dissemination of information, both good (anti-corruption) and bad .
In preparing for the sessions I sought out some quantitative data in order to better understand the statistical significance of social media throughout the region. I was not successful; internet usage statistics are difficult to obtain for the region, especially for nations where significant proportions of the online population may be using proxy servers or fictitious information to obscure their identities.
Figure 1 – Internet Saturation
|Country||Percentage with Internet Access in 2007||Percentage with Internet Access in 2009||Percentage with Internet Access in 2011|
Even more difficult to obtain were statistics for social media in the region.
Figure 2 – Social Media Penetration in Central Asia
of Population (%)
The U.S. government has noticed the possibilities available in these new forms of media, and has been increasing both its use of Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, but also its capacity to make an unfiltered internet available to others through the creation of proxy servers and the like. Postulating that the benefits of free exchanges outweigh the risks (what Secretary Clinton calls “smart risks”), Secretary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation, Alex Ross, stated earlier this year that “The 21st century is a lousy time to be a control freak. Instead of regulating this environment, or seeking to control the environment, I think what’s important is that we engage in it… It redistributes power from hierarchies to citizens, from large institutions and the nation state to individuals and networks of individuals.”
NGOs, such as Open Society, have striven to use social media to affect change in Central Asia, even holding “camps” as training sessions for local partners to learn the possibilities and technical aspects of utilization of social media in their campaigns. The State Department held a training seminar in Almaty in June of this year (Tech Forum Central Asia – TFCA) in which “participants received small-group, hands-on training and worked to identify and solve specific problems and challenges youth and organizations face in this region” Some governments in the region do not appreciate the effort.
Some states of Central Asia, independently and within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) framework, have sought to restrict and control social media within their borders. Noting the U.S. State Department’s efforts to bolster the use of social media to create “…shadow networks,”  the CSTO has moved to censure and restrict access to social media. In particular, the CSTO would move internationally to prevent and presumably punish speech on the internet “…that incites terrorism, secessionism or extremism or that undermines other countries’ political, economic and social stability, as well as their spiritual and cultural environment.” Such a blanket call for internet censorship for such a wide variety of offenses constitutes a very real danger for online liberties.
 Giulio Quaggiotto, “Social media for anticorruption? Exploring experiences in the former Soviet Block,” Vioces from Eurasia, 27 July 2011, http://europeandcis.undp.org/blog/2011/07/27/social-media-for-anticorruption-exploring-experiences-in-the-former-soviet-block/ (accessed 25 September 2012).
 http://realgoogoosha.com/ (accessed 25 September 2012). See Nathan Ham, “So this is happening,” Registan.net, 31 May 2012, http://registan.net/2012/05/31/so-this-is-happening/ (accessed 25 September 2012).
 International Telecommunications Union, http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/material/excel/Individuals%20using%20the%20Internet2000-2011.xls (accessed 25 September 2012).
 Joby Warrick, “Clinton: U.S. losing global public-relations battle – to ‘Baywatch’ and wrestling,” Washington Post, 3 March 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/02/AR2011030206898.html (accessed 25 September 2012).
 Victoria Esser, “The Role of Social Media in Diplomacy,” DipNote, 28 June 2012, http://blogs.state.gov/index.php/site/entry/social_media_diplomacy (accessed 25 September 2012).
 “U.S. Foreign Policy and Social Media,” 19 July 2012, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/pl/196099.htm (accessed 25 September 2012) and Grant Gross, “State Dept. Official: Governments Can’t Fight Social Media,” PC World, 10 January 2012, http://www.pcworld.com/article/247735/state_dept_official_governments_cant_fight_social_media.html (accessed 25 September 2012).
 “Central Asia: Censorship and Control of the Internet and Other New Media,” FOCUS, March 2012 Vol. 67, http://www.hurights.or.jp/archives/focus/section2/2012/03/central-asia-censorship-and-control-of-the-internet-and-other-new-media1.html (accessed 25 September 2012).