A browser that bypasses censors has become the most popular way to access the Internet in Kazakhstan, a Central Asian state where sites critical of the government are often blocked, a Web statistics firm said.

The Norwegian developed Opera browser made by Opera Software has increased its market share sharply in the ex-Soviet state since it began to allow downloads of compressed web pages via a server outside the country -- a feature designed to speed browsing.

The Opera browser is now the most popular in the country with a market share of 32 percent, beating out rival products from Google, Microsoft and Apple, according to statistics for March from Web analytics firm StatCounter.

The browser has increased its popularity by 60 percent in the past year alone, Opera Software said.

Kazakhstan introduced a law last year allowing local courts to block access to Web sites whose content has been deemed illegal, a step that human rights groups say amounts to censorship.

Some of the most popular blogging websites such as Livejournal.com and Google-run Blogger.com are now inaccessible to most of Kazakhstan's 3.2 million Internet users.

Both Livejournal.com and Blogger.com host blogs run by opponents of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's leader for 20 years who wields sweeping powers and is never criticized by domestic mainstream media.

However, the new edition of Opera introduced last year, Opera 10, allows users to view otherwise inaccessible Web pages using its Opera Turbo feature designed to speed up browsing over slow connections.

Kazakhstan ranked among the world's top 10 countries by the number of Opera Turbo users in January, according to a report by Opera Software.

The Norwegian software developer, however, does not advertise the anti-censorship feature of its product or see it as its key to success in Kazakhstan.

We link such growth to the release of several new versions of Opera 10.x within the last year that perform significantly better than our earlier products, Opera Software spokesman Vladimir Isayev said in an email.

As for accessing blocked resources -- we do not comment on that.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)