In some countries, such as Uzbekistan and Belarus, government officials closely monitor the activities of local Internet service providers. In other countries, such as Romania, the lack of phone lines to rural areas appears to hobble the spread of the Internet more than overt official interference.
With the highest gross domestic product, Romania is the furthest along in terms of Internet penetration.
According to Bogdan Manolea, in December 2005 there were 5 million visitors to Romanian websites, representing about 23-25 percent of the population, an increase of 100 percent over the past five years.
"In 1998, only 2 percent of the population accessed websites. And in 2000, the percentage was around 10 percent," says Manolea, executive director of the Romanian Association for Technology and the Internet, a Bucharest-based NGO that promotes human rights in the "digital environment." Romania also has 900 Internet service providers (ISPs).Lack Of Resources
At the other end of spectrum of "wired" countries lies Tajikistan, which had only four ISPs in 2002, according to Parvina Ibodova, chairwoman of Dushanbe's Civil Internet Policy Initiative. Tajikistan now has 12 ISPs providing a variety of services.
Ibodova explains that Tajikistan may be poor, but it has made great technical strides compared to other Central Asian countries. Ibodova says that's due to the commitment of Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov to the Internet.
"Although it may sound improbable, it is a fact that Tajikistan was designated by the G8 [Group of Eight leading industrialized nations], which is now having [presummit] sessions in Russia, as the poorest country in the world -- even though as far as high technology is concerned we are far ahead of some of our neighbors.," Ibodova says.Government Censorship
Ibodova did not address the issue of censorship in her presentation at a public briefing at RFE/RL's Washington offices -- an issue that her colleagues from Uzbekistan and Belarus admitted is an ongoing problem.
Shaukat Valitov is the former country coordinator for Uzbekistan of the Global Internet Policy Initiative, an international NGO that promotes open, user-controlled Internet in developing countries.
Valitov explained that although Uzbekistan has a good law on freedom of information, actual practice is quite different. Following the May 2005 Andijon uprising, many Uzbek NGOs had their websites blocked by the central authorities.
How did they do this? According to Valitov, the system was decentralized in 2002, but local ISPs cooperate in filtering content because they don't want to lose their licenses.
"Each ISP is responsible for filtering content which is not determined by any agency," he says. "But [the ISPs] are doing on the basis of their own sense [of what the government would not allow]. The government [makes] the agreement with them when they [get their] license.
In Belarus, the situation is similar. This year, the websites of opposition presidential candidates were targeted during the run-up to the March 19 election, according to Mikhail Doroshevich, the founder of e-belarus.org, a Minsk-based news site. "The site of one of the candidates on this day [March 19] was attacked and went offline," he says.
However, if the experience of Romania provides any guide for its counterparts in Central Asia and the former Soviet Union, political censorship can ease over time. According to Manolea, after 2004, the Internet has been fairly free of political interference. The Social Democratic Party located its site on a server that is outside of the country.
But also helpful to boosting Internet usage has been and loosening central control has been simplifying the process for companies to become ISPs.
"Right now it is very easy to start an ISP and to start providing Internet," Manolea says. "You just need to make a formal notification to the authority and tomorrow you can start providing your activities. So this has encouraged pretty much the number of the ISPs and also the number of visitors."
BREAKING THE NEWS: In 2000, Internews and the Center for Democracy and Technology established the Global Internet Policy Initiative (GIPI) to promote an open, democratic, and user-controlled Internet in developing countries. Throughout the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe, GIPI has worked to bring together local stakeholders and advocate policy reforms that will support development of the Internet as a tool of democratization, economic growth, and human development.
On May 3, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a roundtable discussion of these issues. Participants included PARVINA IBODOVA, chairman of the Civil Internet Policy Initiative and GIPI Coordinator; BOGDAN MANOLEA, Executive Director of the Romanian Association for Technology and Internet (APTI), an independent NGO that works to promote human rights in the digital environment and support digital civil rights in Romanian society; and experts working in the Internet policy development area from Belarus and Uzbekistan. Internet-policy advocates from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Russia, and Ukraine also took part in the discussion.
LISTEN Listen to the entire 90-minute briefing (the first two minutes are low volume):Real Audio Windows Media
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