||Asean Affairs 17 September 2011
Asian countries now see futility of Internet blockage
Governments around the world have tried for years to control the Internet, dismayed by its potential to incite violence, spread mischief and distribute pornography and dissent.
But in Asia, home to everything from robust democracies to totalitarian regimes, many governments are realizing that controlling online content, including dissent, will not work.
Even China, which strongly regulates the Internet and is grappling with how to deal with popular microblogs read by hundreds of millions of people, is unlikely to block them completely.
“Governments are committing quite a bit of resources and time to block Web sites. I think it’s a panic reaction,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
Singapore blocks a symbolic list of 100 sites but does not bar any site for political content. Despite strict controls on political discussion, it allowed 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.
Malaysia pledged in 1996 not to impose controls on the Internet and was rewarded with investments from companies such as Microsoft and Cisco Systems.
The decision led to vibrant online political commentary. Analysts said the government had quietly considered some form of filters 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,” political analyst Ong Kian Ming said.
“Netizens have been emboldened. It is hard to see how the government can try to turn this tide without reaping a lot of negative reaction.”
The feeling is growing that imposing any sort of controls on online political debate backfires.
“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.