ASEAN’s tangled web: Governments flex legal muscles to stifle online dissent
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ASEAN’s tangled web: Governments flex legal muscles to stifle online dissent

AS the 2016 calendar year draws to a close, analysts and experts are rolling out predictions and looking back at the past 12 months in review – What have we achieved so far? Where will we be at the dawning of 2017?

2016 has witnessed exponential advances in technology: From self-driving vehicles to virtual reality headsets, artificially intelligent voice-controlled butlers and an ambitious plan to colonise Mars, we have seen and heard it all.

The ASEAN economy is chugging along, albeit at a slower rate, but a Focus Economics forecast says dynamics in the region will likely improve next year, after an expected 4.6 percent expansion in 2016.

“They offer important markets with middle-class consumers,” an article in Business Mirror says of emerging economies like Indonesia and Vietnam.

Hand-in-hand with growth is, of course, the demand and need for free flow of information, and the ease at which such information is accessed. As Computer Weekly suggests, the Internet of Things (IoT) is quickly gaining momentum in Southeast Asia. Citing a forecast by Frost and Sullivan, it says IoT spending in the region is expected to grow in value by 35 percent from an estimated US$1.68 billion last year to US$7.53 billion in 2020.

In fact, the region’s Internet economy on the whole is expected to be worth a staggering US$200 billion annually within just 10 years, according to a report released by Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek and Google.

The region of 600 million is also home to highest number of social media users in the world, signalling a marked increase in access to broadband networks and with it, the inevitable shift in news appetites from traditional to new media.

But as evidenced over the year, the proliferation of new media content has stoked government fears of dissent and uprisings by media-savvy youths, and led to the implementation of tougher Internet controls, often on the pretext of maintaining peace and public order.

In fact, despite the region’s high Internet penetration and increased accessibility to web-based resources, almost all of the 10 ASEAN-member countries, with the exception of Burma, have shown either no improvement or a decline in Internet freedom rankings this year.

SEE ALSO: Freedom House: China is the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom

According to a policy brief by London-based human rights group Article 19, however, the tougher cyber laws and censorship measures are reflective of a global trend.

Authoritarian and democratic countries around the world, the group says in the brief released Dec 8, have been placing more restrictions on freedom of expression online through blocking or filtering of content that governments deem “illegal”.

The group says while the Internet is designed to enable a free flow of information, technical measures restricting access to content are now “worryingly” commonplace.

“Many governments are now in breach of their obligations under international human rights law as a result of their use of blocking/filtering technologies,” it notes.

“Even more disturbingly, vast swathes of information are disappearing from the Internet without users even noticing. Blocking/filtering also contribute to the fragmentation of the Internet by reinstating borders, contrary to the medium’s architecture and design,” it adds.

To offer readers a better understanding of the issue, Asian Correspondent has compiled a few recednt examples that illustrate the extent of these web controls and how some Southeast Asian governments have used them – and will likely continue to use them – to curtail freedoms.

Indonesia – Political memes could lead to jail time

In September, the Indonesian government proposed tweaks to the 2008 Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law which would, among others, punish those who post texts, videos, pictures and memes “deemed to incite fear or cause embarrassment”.

The amendments came despite calls to revoke a controversial article on defamation in the legislation.

The government insists that such memes are a form of cyber-bullying but critics say this would only stifle Internet freedom, as public officials embroiled in corruption cases or campaigning politicians are often the subject of meme jokes among netizens.

A total of 62 people have been punished for various other violations under the law in recent years, reflecting the exponential increase in the number of those criminalised compared to only two when the law was introduced in 2008.

Data shows that defamation comprises 90 percent of the overall number of cases involved.

Malaysia – Internet Service Providers practicing self-censorship, blocking sites

A Dec 20 study titled, “The State of Internet Censorship in Malaysia” suggests that the country’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been been facilitating censorship in the country by tampering with Internet connections and blocking 39 websites.

According to local portal Malay Mail Online, the study jointly-conducted by Sinar Project and global censorship monitor Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) found that it was not just pornographic websites that were blocked, but also those seen promoting religious and political criticism, as well as independent news sites.

“This study provides data that serves as evidence of the DNS blocking of 39 different websites in Malaysia. Since block pages were detected for all of these sites, their censorship is confirmed and undeniable.

“The blocked websites include news outlets, blogs, and a popular publishing platform (medium.com),” the report said, as quoted by the MMO.

The study adds that while blocking could be justified for national security reasons, much of the censorship appeared to be politically motivated.

Thailand – Increased surveillance, tougher punishment on critics of the monarchy and junta government

While the kingdom is already known for its strict lese-majeste laws – which are used to protect the exalted royal family from insult or threat and described as the world’s toughest – the military government, which seized power in 2014, recently made sweeping changes to its Computer Crime Act (CCA) 2007.

On Dec 16, Parliament passed legislation amending the law to prescribe punishment for the online publication of any data deemed as obscene and offensive. Internet users who knowingly share such data will also face punishment, along with the ISP that allows its publication online.

Thai authorities are also allowed to access users’ personal data without a court order, should they feel an offence has been committed.

Any data or website seen as offensive to public morals can also be taken down by the authorities.

The amendments, according to many critics, opens up the law to abuse. Authorities sanctioned by the government can decide what kind of content is considered damaging or against public morals, as well as determine the intentions of the person who posted such content and the person who shared it with others.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has defended the need for cyber controls, but rights groups insist they will only lead to more extensive online monitoring by the state, saying it raised the likelihood of increased censorship and arbitrary invasion of privacy.

Vietnam – Repression of online dissenters still “severe”

The one-party state is notorious for its media clampdowns. This year, the government jailed at least three bloggers for criticising the communist administration’s policies.

Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net” 2016 report says repression of critical netizens in Vietnam remained “severe” following the March 2016 sentencing of the three bloggers who received three and five years’ prison.

Prior to the sentencing, the three bloggers had been detained without trial since 2014. Among them were 60-year-old former policeman Nguyen Huu Vinh, who was sentenced to five years’ jail, while his 36-year-old assistant Minh Thuy received three years.

The two were convicted of running the “Ba Sam” blogs, which began in 2007, and mixed news and commentary from a stable of distinguished contributors. According to the BBC, the site attracted several million page views but authorities claimed the two had lowered the public’s trust in the ruling party.

Freedom House noted, however, that blogging and social media platforms in Vietnam remain available, although Facebook was briefly blocked in May 2016 in response to protests over an environmental disaster in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

The government has also widely used Decree 174 to impose harsh fines on criticism since the law was introduced in 2015, while another circular issued in October 2014 requires website owners to take down content at the request of authorities.