Controlling the uncontrollable

It is the dearest wish of autocrats to somehow rein in the democratic power of the Internet.

Aneesa Alphonsus, Free Malaysia Today

Although the origins of the Internet reach back into the 1960s, it was not until the early 1990s that it became a fact-finding and communication tool for any layman with a computer connected to a network server connected to other network servers.

But in less than a generation it has morphed from being a mere host of bulletin boards and electronic libraries into a virtually breathing entity capable even of toppling powerful governments, as Middle Eastern dictators and autocrats recently learned to their chagrin.

Indeed, one cannot ignore—or perhaps even contest—the power of the Internet. It is a vehicle to promote, chastise and empower. Not surprisingly, it is the dearest wish of the politically powerful to find some way to control it.

Malaysia was among the first few countries in the world to introduce cyber laws, and several people have been charged in court under the Computer Crimes Act 1997

And there have been further attempts to restrict the flow of information through the Malaysian cyberspace.

In 2009, Communication and Culture Minister Rais Yatim announced that Malaysia was already selecting software to filter the Internet, the ostensible target being pornography. But the public suspected that the real intention was to stem the flow of politically sensitive information.

The reaction against the plan was so strong that the government was forced to reconsider. Rais said there would not be any filtering of the Internet but that the Home Minister and the de facto Law Minister had been given the task of looking for instances of sedition, fraud, and child pornography.

Few believe that the government really intends to abandon the filtering plan. Meanwhile, it has been resorting to the draconian Internal Security Act to silence blogging dissidents and critics. But this has been of little avail; Malaysian bloggers are becoming more aggressive than ever in voicing their opinions.

Trial in Thailand

Thailand also has its Computer Crimes Act, and the government has been ramping up its reliance on it to restrict criticism of the royal family and limit the spread of what it calls seditious material.

It was under this law that Thai authorities in 2009 charged Chiranuch Premchaiporn, webmaster of online news portal Prachatai with lèse majesté. Prachatai means “Thai People”. Chiranuch’s trial began last February. She faces imprisonment of up to 50 years.

The disconcerting part about the case is that Chiranuch, also known by her online handle of Jiew, is being prosecuted not because of anything she said, but for being the director and webmaster of a news site where pseudonymous visitors submitted comments and posts that the Thai government considered inappropriate.

Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn says the computer crime laws are designed to protect people from fraud and defamation, but that the laws are at times being used to address what he describes as “national security” issues.

The act, which was introduced during the administration of Gen Surayud Chulanont, was first successfully used to prosecute blogger Suvicha Thakor, who received a 20-year-jail sentence last April.

He has applied for a royal clemency and is waiting for the result. At least six other people have been arrested under this law, but prosecutors have yet to arraign them.

“Prachathai was the first Thai online web portal and it’s very popular because of the web boards,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

“This lady is being accused of not monitoring the web boards. This is truly a harsh blow to the freedom of the Internet in Thailand.

“Having said that, I must add that there is more freedom of expression in Thailand (than elsewhere in Asia). Even with the Internet situation mentioned, Thailand has quite a bit of fairness in reporting.”

Situation in Vietnam

Vietnam, an authoritarian communist state, has been arresting people caught posting thoughts that run contrary to government policy, and has detained lawyers who try to defend them.

Popular blogger Bui Thanh Hieu was detained for several days after criticising the government’s mining policies.

Another blogger, Huy Duc, was fired from his job at a Ho Chi Minh City newspaper after the Communist Party complained about his postings.

Vietnamese Internet users recently reported that the government was blocking Catholic sites following a number of Catholic protests within the country.

Although the Vietnamese government claims it filters the Internet only for pornographic and obscene content, it is an open secret among citizens and Internet-watchers that the filters are often used to regulate politically sensitive chatter. Meanwhile, ironically enough, porn can easily be accessed within Vietnam.

Human Rights Watch, Writers Without Borders, Amnesty International and other human rights groups are also blocked within Vietnam.

To be sure, not every government in the region is trying to bolt down the Internet. The Singapore government, which exercises tight controls on the mainstream media, has taken a relatively hands-off approach to the Internet.

The governments of Indonesia and the Philippines do not limit political content on the Internet.