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Turkmenistan's Internet Blues

Turkmenistan is infamous for its tightly controlled media, and is one of the world's greatest Internet Enemies by Reporters Without Borders’ estimations. With the average Turkmen finding his or her Internet access intermittent, slow, and tightly circumscribed, it is perhaps unsurprising that cyber-optimism among Turkmen internet users is running at an all time low.

Turkmenistan has had official access to the Internet since 1997. Non-mobile internet services are dominated Turkmen Telecom, while mobile services are provided by Russian mobile operator MTS and its Turkmen competitor, Altyn Asyr. (A host of smaller independent Turkmen Internet Service Providers were strong-armed out of the market at the turn of the century). Altyn Asyr and Turkmen Telecom are both overseen by the Ministry of Communications, and are thus unflinchingly loyal to the country's body politic. Censorship is ubiquitous and extensive across the country.

First-graders

First graders risk “Internet Disease”. Photo from Golden Age of Turkmenistan (state-controlled media) shared via Eurasianet.org's Sifting the Karakum blog.

Those lucky enough to have access to Altyn Ayr's service consent tacitly to blanket surveillance and selective access to non-Turkmen websites. Reporters Without Borders conveys [ru]:

Оппозиционные сайты, такие как XpoHo.tm и Gundogar, а также региональные информационные сайты по Центральной Азии – Ferghana или EurasiaNet.org – заблокированы. Доступ к YouTube и LiveJournal стал невозможен в конце 2009 года, с целью помешать туркменам вести общение в блогах или отправляать видео за границую Facebook и Twitter до сих пор заблокированы.

Opposition websites such as Chrono-TM and Gundogar, and regional news sites covering Central Asia such as ferghana.ru and Eurasianet, are blocked. YouTube and LiveJournal were rendered inaccessible late in 2009 to prevent Turkmen from blogging or sending videos abroad. Facebook and Twitter are also blocked.

Under a Voice of America article about censorship in Central Asia in November last year, Аноним [Anonym] vented [ru]:

Цензура в Туркменистане это вообще полный крах. Закрывают не только сайты новостей, но закрыты: ютуб, фэйсбук, а также все распространенные месенджеры. На сегодня закрыты: whatsapp, Jabber (все что работают на его протоколе), Viber, iMesege и куча других. А потом удивляются что так хреново развивается интернет в стране… Да нафиг он кому нужен если там ничего не открывается и не работает?

Censorship in Turkmenistan is awful. Not only [independent] news sites but YouTube, Facebook and all the usual messengers are closed. Nowadays whatsapp, Jabber, Viber, iMessage and others [are closed]. And then we wonder why the internet that develops in the country is so shitty… who needs it at all if none of these things work?

In fact, YouTube, and the Russian social network Odnoklasniki are two sites that Turkmen netizens can currently access, but the slow speed of the average Tukmen internet connection renders this “access” hypothetical. Another anonymous commenter complained on fergananews [ru]:

Все равно ютуб со скоростью 33-44кб/с невозможно смотреть.

Anyway, YouTube at 33-44 Kb/s is impossible to watch.

What’s up with netizens?

State censorship over the internet is cynical, but not shocking to most Turkmens. The regular internet using demographic is school teenagers and university students who study both inside and outside the country. Thoughts and comments expressed on most Turkmen websites regarding the internet are usually negative. Some users such as as muslimah, writing on a privately owned forum Ertir.com, conceive the internet as an infectious disease, and are actively looking for a remedy to recover and be well again [tm]:

Salam,shu internetden nadip ayrylyp bolyaray?ine okuw bashlandy,okap bashlamaly welin hich internetden ayrylyp bolanok,erte okarn diyyan her gun,ka wagt bolya yarym sagat oturayyn diyyan welin ondan buna girip butin gun otyranyny bilman galyan :(

Hi, how can I set myself free from the internet? A semester starts, and I have to study, but I cannot separate myself from internet, it is an obstacle and addictive that I spend my whole day without knowing the passage of time :(

Feya gives a prescription [tm]:

Internet keseli mana-da on degdi, hiich ayrylyp bilemmokdum. indi beyle dal. Men pikirimcha hemme zat adamyn ozine bagly. Bir zady chynyn bilen islesen shony basharyp bolya. Internede girmejek bolsan gyzykly kitap oka, wagtyny bashga zada sowjak bol son owrenship gidersin, we mohum at dal bolup galar.

Once I was also infected with internet disease, i couldn't get well for a long time. Now I have recovered. Everything is in your hands, you can do it too. Read some interesting books, and do some other activities. Then, the Internet would seem not such an important thing in your life.

For females, internet-use can be regarded as immoral and against Turkmen tradition. Another internet user, posting as Skynet on RFE/RL's Turkmen service,  expressed [tm] his thoughts under an article ‘Internetde oturýar’ adyny alasym gelenok [I do not want to be called an "internet user"]:

Internet gyzlary sheylebir uytgetdi edil oglanlary uytgedishi yaly.erbetlige tarap uytgetdi.hazir yashlar inet bn dem alyalar.ahli adamlar internet kerebine(shol sanda menem) cholashyp chykyp bilenoklar.adamzadyn ahli dunyasi,ekonomikasy,politikasy,medeniyeti,mashgala durmushy yitip yok bolmaga bashlady.munun dine bir gunakari bar olam internet-skynet

Internet also changed our girls as it previously did boys. and it changed them in negative way. They breathe through the internet. Now all people are trapped in the internet's web (including me). It starts eradicating all our social, economic, political, and family life. So we do not need it.

Turkmenistan's internet blues can be attributed partly to the limited and “homegrown” nature of the Turkmen internet and partly to a lack of education about cyberspace and technology as a whole. Although the government marked the first day of the 2012 school calendar by giving free net-books to all first graders, there is an acute shortage of tech-savvy teachers to help them use their new toys.

Ruslan T, a blogger and journalist at the independent, diaspora-run Turkmen Chronicles news website wrote in a blog titled “Useless Gift”:

It should be noted that the majority of elementary school teachers have attended training sessions at computer centers and acquired [basic] computer literacy skills. However, only a few of them have managed to pass these skills on to their students. It is just [not within] the professional competencies of teachers.

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