Turkmenistan: The Turkmenet’s Not Over Until the Fat Lady Sings!

by NewEurasia.net    /  March 28, 2012  / No comments

Opera, the most widely used browser for Internet service in Turkmenistan, has been 'blacked out' for the past month.

Google and Opera appear to have been blocked in Turkmenistan — or have they? Neweurasia‘s Anna Soltan explores the mix of censorship, incompetence, and terrible infrastructure that constitutes the “shoddy omnipotence” of government digital control, and why this is both a source of distress and hope.

This article was originally published by NewEurasia.net on February 27, 2012. It is reprinted with permission.

There’s more funny business going on in the Turkmenet. Recently I have heard many Turkmenetizens complaining about this or that Google service not working. Google Analytics went out of service for a little while, and now Gmail seems to be down on Android-enabled smartphones, while remaining accessible via the UCweb browser. Google’s Android smartphone also appears to have been affected. However, what’s more worrying is that the Opera mini-browser also appears to have been blacked out for the past five consecutive days.

[Update: March 26, 2012 Anna Soltan: "The situation hasn't changed. Gmail users are still encountering problems, Opera mini is still blacked out...The blocking of sites has gotten worse."]

Opera is a major player in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Since 2010, its regular browser has been the most widely used means for surfing the Web in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Belarus, while its mini browser for mobile platforms claims 350,000 Armenian users and a monstrous 70% of all Russian mobile Internet users. For those of us interested in the freedom of information, this is reason to celebrate: Neweurasia learned back in June 2011 (as a result of Kazakhstan’s WordPress ban) that Opera’s regular browser’s “turbo” function serves as a kind of accidental proxy server. Meanwhile, Opera mini has been used as a cost-effective method to access sites like Facebook that are either blocked, or are expensive to access because of telecom rates, or difficult to surf because of low-quality desktop computers. For the cherry on top, there is now also a hacked version of Opera mini with a built-in proxy.

“It’s more worthwhile to fit [these problems] into a larger diagnosis of the cyber-disease in my country: A combination of censorship, incompetence, and terrible infrastructure.” –Anna Soltan

So, how can all these blackouts be explained? Since the Turkmen government keeps its restrictions on telephone and Internet communication in the country secret, the picture is often not immediately clear. Further complicating the situation are neverendingly conflicting reports about access itself. (Remember the huge debate when Neweurasia‘s Schwartz told Al Jazeera that Internet cafes in Turkmenistan require passports to enter?) So, instead of trying to diagnose these specific incidents with Google and Opera, I think it’s more worthwhile to fit them into a larger diagnosis of the general cyber-disease in my country: A combination of censorship, incompetence, and terrible infrastructure.

The Turkmenet’s Rotting Foundations

There are four main and interconnected problems plaguing the Turkmenet nowadays, and all of them need to be taken seriously.

Problem #1: The constant blocking of tools that provide access to blocked sites, especially those that are deemed to be critical of the Turkmen government’s policies, or carry uncensored news and operate outside of the government’s control. Opera mini’s blocking seems to be intended as a long-term thing, but I could be wrong (see: next paragraph). Again, remember that it’s a cost-effective way of getting to a site like Facebook, which, besides its function for social networking, contains a lot of news content that would give the Turkmen authorities a headache.

Problem #2: A pattern of temporary and partial blocking. This is the less obvious but more sinister part of the Turkmen regime, because usually a service is shut down and then restored within a few days, until another kind of service is hit. Whether Opera mini’s restriction is of type-one or type-two blocking — if either — remains to be seen. The length of the restriction makes me think it’s type-one (by comparison, the erratic nature of the Google restriction makes me think it’s type-two), but there could be infrastructural reasons behind it.

Problem #3: Server request timeouts and frequent freezing or slowing down of communication that Internet users encounter with social applications such as Mail.ru and Mobimeet. This could be explained by my country’s woeful telecommunication infrastructure, sparked by extra loads on the IP ports caused by these popular social applications. Indeed, ever since [the Russian mobile company] MTS was liquidated in Turkmenistan (read: here and here) and Altyn Asyr took over totally, server problems have become much more frequent.

[Update: March 26, 2012 Anna Soltan: "The Mail.ru service frequently appears as 'Service Not Allowed.'"]

Problem #4: On a related note, the system itself creates problems. After MTS was forced to end its operations in Turkmenistan, the president instructed every Altyn Asyr service person to sell 50 phone numbers monthly. Failure to do so would result in the difference being subtracted from the service person’s salary. Consequently, Altyn Asyr has sold way more mobile phone numbers than the system can actually carry, so many Turkmen have phones with no access.

A SIM Card (memory chip) for a mobile phone under Turkmenistan's state-owned and only mobile operator, Altyn Asyr (also known as TM Cell)

At the same time, too many people have showed up at Altyn Asyr’s doors, resulting in huge queues. No one in the telecom sector seemed to care that a server intended for 300,000 people cannot support 2-3 million, reducing an already slow Internet to a crawl. The company’s job was just to sell. So, quite literally, there is an access rationing system going on, which is why phone usage and Internet access seems to be constantly undergoing rolling blackouts.

Shoddy Omnipotence

So, which of these problems could be behind Opera mini’s blocking? Not a long time ago, Opera mini was blocked and restored again, something which largely went unnoticed by the outside world. But now the block has disabled the hacked version with the built-in proxy function, as well. That’s very suspicious, but let’s think a little harder.

[Update: March 26, 2012 Anna Soltan: "There are new versions of Opera Mini in circulation among the Turkmenetizens with a built-in proxy: Opera Mobila12 and OperaMini7."]

From what I’ve seen, activity on the Internet (both Turkmenet and beyond) and page views on blocked sites have increased, which may have been alarming to the authorities and thus prompted the restrictions on Opera and Google. Yet, in the end they can only do so much against Google because it’s part of IT lessons taught in schools and Gmail (accessed via Android-enabled smartphones) is widespread, especially among businessmen. Moreover, since all of Turkmenistan is accessing the internet from a single IP, an extensive block of Google would be too self-revealing, particularly as the president has repeatedly promised to improve the Internet. It’s a unique situation: Having omnipotence over the Internet, even if it’s shoddy omnipotence, makes it harder to hide your motivations.

“Nonetheless, as it’s said about beauty, fear is in the eye of beholder. There are many Turkmenetizens who remain determined to get to the outside world.” –Anna Soltan

Given that omnipotence, the government has also been seen as tacitly allowing unwanted access to a number of blocked sites that are useful to Turkmen businesses, particularly via Opera mini, to a point that the service has arguably become vital for (real) national interest. So, when I think about it, the authorities may be undecided about what to do. The type of restriction depends on how the authorities, and especially which faction among them, perceive the advantage or disadvantage of allowing Opera to continue its services, or restricting it, and for how long.

This is assuming we’re actually dealing with a restriction and not just an unusually large infrastructural failure, since sometimes what I called a type-two “rolling”or “sporadic” restriction is really just overload. Conversely, this could be a type-one long-term restriction that is depending on the weak infrastructure to do most of the job and/or provide the excuse — that is, if the authorities are pressed for one by the outside world. Indeed, we keep hearing about how the government is in negotiations with several foreign firms to improve Altyn Asyr and TmCell, and yet, magically, we haven’t seen a single result so far.

Fear is in the Eye of the Beholder

Most importantly, restricting the Internet — or the perception of restricting the Internet, as in the case of infrastructure failures that the authorities do not admit — has a valuable built-in fear effect. Once the word is spread that a service is blocked, people fear using it again lest they end up persecuted. That is, of course, welcomed by those authorities who don’t understand the Internet, or the current and potential value it has for the development of our country, and only care about control.

It’s no surprise that rumors are rife that the popular social forums Ertir.com and Talyplar.com may soon be targeted by the authorities. Today, no one thinks it beyond possibility that Mail.ru, the popular chat forum, will be blocked in Turkmenistan sooner or later. Everyone can feel how the government is stepping up its control over the Turkmenet through various ways, and even the ongoing problems with a certain hacker makes everyone all the more suspicious and nervous.

[Update: March 26, 2012 Anna Soltan: "The popular social site ertir.com was (at least) closed to Turkmen several times for more than a week."]

Nonetheless, as it’s said about beauty, fear is in the eye of beholder. There are many Turkmenetizens who remain determined to get to the outside world. Restricting Opera mini has made circumventing the government’s blockage profoundly difficult again, requiring Turkmenetizens to constantly jump and switch to other tools and skills (and the willingness to use them) which only a few people have at the moment. Yet, the number of those people is slowly increasing, and in the end, all it takes is a few of them to keep information flowing — especially when you consider just how shoddy the authorities’ digital omnipotence really is. It’s always a two-sided coin. That’s why I believe, if I may make another pun, this time inspired by Opera, the struggle of the Turkmenet is far from over, not until the fat lady sings…

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