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OSCE to Discuss Internet, 'Digital Divide' - 2004-08-25

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has called a special two-day conference starting Friday to look at the problems and dangers of the free flow of information on the Internet.

International experts from the United States, Central Asia and the Caucasus meet Friday in Amsterdam to look at what the OSCE calls the "digital divide", separating countries such as the U.S. from regions such as Central Asia where access to the Internet is restricted.

OSCE spokeswoman Christiane Hardy says while many people in developing areas can't afford to keep up with modern technology, in Central Asia it is often government interference that makes use of the Internet difficult.

"There's no access at all, physical access or it's very hard in Uzbekistan to get into the Net," she said. "There's strong censorship from the government. Well not in Tashkent itself, but when you get outside Tashkent it's much more a problem. And in other Central Asian countries it's more a problem. For example Turkmenistan has very strong censorship."

Ms. Hardy says the Turkmen regime under president Saparmurat Niyazov blocks the Internet and even tracks down people using Internet cafes to check out the web sites they have accessed.

In countries such as Uzbekistan, use of the Internet is expensive and one hour online could cost as much as a tenth of the average monthly wage. Recent terrorist attacks in the capital, Tashkent, have led to information blackouts in the country. People complain that news on Uzbek television is limited and sometimes comes days after the event.

The government can also centrally disengage all mobile telephones making communication between demonstrators difficult. Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are members of the OSCE but officials admit it is hard to exert pressure on these governments.

The OSCE conference in Amsterdam will also look at the possibilities of blocking hate messages on the Internet.

The Organization hopes the conference will lead to suggestions for best practices on the Internet which will be adopted in the 55 member countries.