Mon, Oct 25, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Keeping the online in line

By Ben Doherty  /  THE GUARDIAN, BANGKOK

Illustration: Yusha

Governments across Southeast Asia are following China’s authoritarian censorship of the digital world to keep political dissent in check.

Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines have all moved or are moving toward monitoring Internet use, blocking international sites regarded as critical and ruthlessly silencing Web dissidents.

In Vietnam, the Communist Party wants to be your “friend” on the state-run version of Facebook, provided you are willing to share all personal details.

In Myanmar, political unrest can be silenced by cutting off the country from the Internet.

In Thailand, Web site moderators can face decades in jail for a posted comment they did not even write if the government deems it injurious to the monarchy.

While much is made of China’s authoritarian attitude toward Internet access, a majority of Southeast Asian governments have similar controls and, rather than relaxing restrictions on Internet use, many are moving toward tighter regulation.

Five leading bloggers across the region spoke about the present restrictions they face, and future fears, for this report.

Raymond Palatino, a Filipino member of parliament and editor with Global Voices, said governments, in addition to crudely blocking Web sites, are starting to use arguments of morality and decency to censor access to information and quash criticism.

“There is direct censorship to block political dissent. You have repressive laws in Myanmar, in Vietnam, in Singapore. In fact, I think Vietnam is catching up with China in terms of building strong firewalls to prevent dissidents from accessing critical content on the Internet,” he said. “But we also see governments using the excuse of protecting the public morality in order to censor Internet content. Governments use the excuse of censoring pornography as a safe argument to make censorship acceptable to the public.”

More than a decade ago, former US president George W Bush asked people to “imagine if the Internet took hold in China. Imagine how freedom would spread.” However, rather than emerging as a catalyst for democracy, the Internet has become another way in which dissent is stifled.

Palatino sees governments using the Internet for their own selfish advantage.

“They are learning how to prevent people from using the Internet to criticize government. Instead of being a potent tool for empowering the people, the Internet will be in the hands of an authoritative, repressive government,” he said.

With a population of more than 600 million, Southeast Asia has about 123 million Internet users. However, penetration rates vary from 0.2 percent in Myanmar and East Timor to more than 80 percent in Brunei and 77 percent in Singapore. However, Southeast Asian use is still dwarfed by China’s 384 million users.

In the Philippines, cybercrime legislation before parliament would outlaw anything deemed obscene or indecent.

“The laws are deliberately broad and vague so they can be used to shut down anything subversive,” Palatino said.

Cambodia’s government is seeking to monitor all Internet use inside the country by appointing the state-owned telephone company to operate the sole Internet exchange.

Web sites will be monitored to filter out pornography, officials say, but opponents say sites critical of the government are also likely to be blocked.

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