Singapore: It’s not just dictators. Governments around the world, many of them popularly elected, have tried for years to control the internet and social media, dismayed by their potential to incite violence, spread mischief and distribute pornography and dissent.
But in Asia, home to everything from free-wheeling democracies to totalitarian regimes and others in between, many governments are increasingly realizing that controlling online content, including dissent, just will not work.
Even China, which strongly regulates the internet and is grappling with how to deal with the extremely popular micro blogs read by hundreds of millions of its people, is highly unlikely to block them completely.
“Governments are committing quite a bit of resources and time to block websites and I think it’s a panic reaction,” says Phil Robertson, Bangkok-based deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW). “They have some temporary, immediate discouraging effect but over the longer term, they won’t be effective because people will still find a way to get the news they want to hear. Once people have been exposed to the Internet and see the power of getting information free to your computer, it’s a very addictive feeling of empowerment.”
That snowballing of sentiment has played out this year in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, where governments have been overthrown by movements bolstered by the internet. The United States (US) tried to block dissemination of the Wikileaks cables and British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to temporarily censor social networking sites after riots last month.
Asia is also learning first-hand about the ubiquitous power of the wired world. In India, authorities were taken aback last month when an anti-corruption campaign multiplied on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites and drew tens of thousands of people to protest sites.
But there were no signs the government tried in any way to crack down on the online crusade, even if it could have. “At the rate in which it gained momentum, I don’t think the government actually had the time to ban the movement,” said Vijay Mukhi, a cyber-security expert.
Mukhi said the government did selectively block some sites, but added internet users in a nation with millions of tech-savvy engineers and software developers could easily bypass controls. “The Indian government doesn’t realize that blocking websites is a futile task because nowadays it has become so easy to find other means to get access to banned sites,” he said. “They are just helping to popularize those particular sites and inviting more traffic.”
South Korea, the world’s most wired nation with 80% of households having access to the internet, is one of two electoral democracies in the world to substantially block access to some sites, said a study on 37 countries this year by United Nations (UN)-funded watchdog Freedom House. The other is Turkey.
South Korea heavily filters online content involving North Korea, with which it is still technically at war. But its citizens continue to lobby the government for more access. “No healthy democracy is possible where free speech is not tolerated,” said a letter earlier this month from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) organization to the president.
“The expansive controls on online speech established in South Korea lack oversight and prevent citizens from accessing valuable expressive, historical, political and artistic online content,” the letter said.
Singapore blocks a symbolic list of 100 mostly pornographic sites but does not to bar any site for political content. And despite strict controls on open political discussion, it allowed freewheeling criticism of government policies in the run-up to general elections this year.
The ruling People’s Action Party easily won the election, but it scored its lowest ever percentage of the vote, and the opposition made historic gains.
Neighbouring Malaysia pledged in 1996 not to impose controls on the internet and was rewarded with investments from foreign technology companies such as Microsoft Corp and Cisco Systems. The decision led to vibrant online political commentary. Analysts say the government had since quietly considered some form of filters on the debate, but decided against it.
“The government feels largely helpless in trying to manage online dissent because methods such as threatening to close down newspapers and targeting bloggers makes netizens angrier and more likely to lash out against the government,” said Ong Kian Ming, who teaches at UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur. “Netizens have clearly been emboldened and it is hard to see how the government can try to turn this tide without reaping a lot of negative reaction,” said Ming.
Across much of Asia, the feeling is growing that imposing any sort of controls on online political debate backfires.
“Usually all it does is draw attention to the person and the message, who tend to be small players anyway,” said Cherian George, an associate professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
“The general pattern is that the blogger who gets censored becomes far more famous than he otherwise might be. The only situation where it might work in the short-term would be highly volatile, fast-moving situations. Governments can shut down all communications during violence or a riot, but this can’t be a long-term solution,” said George.