Surveillance cameras at internet cafés, harsh accountability standards for webmasters and the specter of self-censorship have many questioning the future of Internet freedom.
The rise of information and communication technologies has not only revolutionized how people interact with each other but also forced many governments to operate in significantly altered political landscapes.
In some cases governments can help unleash the full potential of an open and free internet; for instance, by ensuring that the web is accessible and affordable to all. On the other hand, governments can also seek to inhibit such access.
The latter seems to be the case in Southeast Asia where, under the cloak of exorcising the evils of cyber crimes, governments have enacted numerous laws that undermine the people’s internet freedom and civil liberties.
For example, the Cambodian government is enforcing legislation drafted earlier this year which requires internet cafés to set up surveillance cameras and to register users. It’s supposedly a crime prevention measure but critics have argued that it violates privacy rights. It could easily be used as well to harass online critics of the government. This fear is perhaps not entirely baseless considering that the government instructed local internet service providers to block several opposition websites a year ago.
Meanwhile, in Singapore, the proposed Code of Conduct for bloggers which didn’t get a favorable response from the local internet community was finally discarded by the government in favor of a Media Literacy Council. Established in August, the council is tasked to promote public education on media literacy and cyber wellness. But critics have questioned the lack of transparency in appointing the members of the council which is seen by some as another internet censorship tool. They are worried that the council might promote a narrow and twisted interpretation of media literacy to prevent netizens from freely expressing their views and sentiments.
Recently, the Philippines enacted the Anti-Cybercrime Law which aims to prevent cyberspace from degenerating into a “lawless realm.” But the law was described as a threat to media freedom by journalists who protested the last-minute inclusion of libel into the law. Instead of decriminalizing libel, which has been the demand of media groups for years, the government enacted a law which increased the prison term for libel. Furthermore, lawyers have cited a provision in the law which empowers the Department of Justice to shut down any computer data system that violates the law. Also, the agency has the authority to instantly censor harmful or illicit web content even if the evidence submitted to the government is not conclusive.
Like the Philippines, Malaysia has introduced amendments in the law which could curtail internet freedom. Under section 114A of the revised Evidence Act of 1950, law enforcement authorities are able to identify the persons who should be made accountable for uploading or publishing content on the internet. These persons are those who own, administer and edit websites, blogs and online forums. Also included in the amendment are persons who offer webhosting services or internet access. This means that a blogger or forum moderator who allows seditious comments on their site is liable under the law. An internet café manager is accountable if his customer sends illegal content online through the store’s WiFi network. A mobile phone owner is the outright suspect if defamatory content is traced back to his electronic device. Media freedom advocates have warned that the amendment could force online writers to resort to self-censorship and web moderators could disallow critical comments in order to avoid prosecution and harassment suits.
The Philippines and Malaysia may have been inspired by Thailand’s experience which has gained notoriety for using restrictive laws to punish government critics. Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code is often described as the world’s harshest lèse majesté (anti-royal insult) law. The controversial law is often invoked to censor web content and shut down websites. Aside from webmasters, even ordinary citizens have been jailed for allegedly sending mobile phone text messages that insult the royal family. Scholars and activists have been demanding a reform in the antiquated law but the government has dismissed the petition.
Elsewhere, Vietnam has distinguished itself as the leading nation in the region with the largest number of jailed journalists (worldwide only Iran and China have more according to Reporters Without Borders). Even the Prime Minister has openly criticized some opposition-leaning bloggers whom he accused of fomenting disunity in the country. The government has taken up the habit of intermittently blocking popular social network sites and arresting bloggers accused of spreading subversive demands.
Governments in the region have justified the imposition of harsh web policies ostensibly to protect the rights of ordinary internet users and uphold public morality. While they pay homage to the positive wonders generated by the internet, they are also wary of the numerous crimes committed in cyberspace.
For example, Singapore’s Media Development Authority defended the creation of the Media Literacy Council by highlighting the need to instill awareness about the proliferation of illegal web activities that victimize the youth. “Social issues such as bullying, scamming, preying on the young and inappropriate comments have found new outlets and been magnified through the multiplier effects of the internet and social media,” the agency warned.
Similarly, the Cambodian government has also invoked public welfare concepts. It added that terrorist acts and other transboundary crimes which affect national traditions and cultural values are often done using telecommunications services.
Philippine Senator Edgardo Angara, the principal author of the Cybercrime Prevention Act, is confident that the law is necessary to bring out the benefits of the internet. “With this law, we hope to encourage the use of cyberspace for information, recreation, learning and commerce. By protecting all users from abuse and misuse, we enable netizens to use cyberspace more productively… Its enactment sends out a strong message to the world that the Philippines is serious about keeping cyberspace safe,” Angara said.
It’s convenient for governments in the region to raise the specter of cybercrimes and web misuse, but in many instances they exaggerated the threats to impose highly punitive measures and stricter media control. Their real aim could be to tame cyberspace and regulate it in the manner that they have successfully controlled traditional media. Web regulation has been deemed necessary because the existence of an unbridled new media has threatened the political hegemony of the political elite.
Online citizen movements have been quite successful in exposing the sinister motives of politicians who wanted to censor the internet but so far they have failed to prevent governments from implementing programs and laws that restrict free speech on the web. Southeast Asian governments, it seems, have been actively studying internet laws in the region and have been exchanging practices on how to effectively manage the dangerous potential of the internet. It’s time for Southeast Asian netizens to counter this disturbing regional trend with their own brand of regional cyber activism.