Disrupting digital harms in Central Asia

By Robert Muggah and Rafal Rohozinski

Published in the Small Wars Journal

Central Asia is the staging ground for a new digital Great Game. The key players include Russia, China, Europe, and the US, along with a rash of Central Asian actors. What happens there has implications not just for the region, but the future of the Internet. One of the reasons why Central Asia’s assuming more strategic importance is because of the digital transformation occurring across the region. Their digitalization is part of a deeper historical commitment to technology-driven modernization stretching back to the twentieth century Soviet Union. Today, the region is registering a dramatic increase in internet roll-out, mobile broadband connections and social media users.

Central Asia’s digitalization is generating opportunities, but also risks. The onboarding of Central Asians is occurring amidst a complex backdrop of top-down secular authoritarianism, bottom-up agitation for more progressive democracticization and a contest between moderate and hardline Islam. Digital transformation, then, could accelerate digital authoritarianism. Indeed, there is a real push from China, Russia and the US to shape the wider technology environment, with profound implications for the future of civic freedoms and digital rights. And as more Central Asians go online, their exposure to digital harms, including violent extremism, is increasing.

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