Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

I was inspired to write this piece after speaking in the 6th International Vietnamese Youth Conference held in Manila, Philippines.

I’ve been reading Southeast Asian blogs since 2008. My other sources of alternative information include twitter, facebook, and other social media sites. They provide not only interesting news stories but also incisive commentaries on various topics, especially politics.

Because of the internet, I came to know the complete name of Bangkok (which happens to be the second longest place name in the world). Online conversations have also deepened my awareness of other societies. I realized that virtual networks enhance not only our political capabilities but also our other daily endeavors like business, health, and leisure.

It allows us to access and share useful information, develop relationships with intelligent individuals and advocacy groups, and transform our communities through the networks we are building. Internet freedom, therefore, is essential in affirming our humanity. And it shouldn’t be a demand which is necessarily exclusive to the political domain.

So what did I learn about the state of internet freedom in Southeast Asia after three years of being a Southeast Asian blogger? I propose the following: First, there are many web freedoms that Southeast Asians are enjoying but the imposition of ‘unfreedoms’ negates the internet’s democratic potential. Second, cyber criminals are not those who are struggling for more web freedoms but those who are implementing and spreading web unfreedoms. Third, digital communities become powerful if their virtual actions are complemented by real-life interventions.

Web freedoms? Yes, even in societies ruled by masters and experts of cyber censorship. Internet users in the region are actually free to criticize another country. They are also free to look and act like fools in the web, free to worship entertainment stars, free to praise the royal family, free to cheer and heckle during sports events, and free to promote charity causes.

Facebook can be easily unblocked if there is a proliferation of hate pages that target an enemy country. Entertainment blogging is encouraged to distract the attention of the young. Political statements are published if they favor the government’s position. Online ranting is allowed as long as they are directed against sports teams. Political activities are not banned if the organizers would only ask the people to donate their coins.

Internet unfreedoms are enforced when authorities try to regulate ‘immoral’ web content. They justify these draconian measures by invoking the name of innocent subjects like the children who need to be protected from dangerous influence in the cyberspace. The top prohibited contents are subversive political ideas and pornography.

For example, Thailand has blocked more than 400,000 ‘harmful’ webpages. It continues to jail foreigners and webmasters who ‘insult’ the King. Meanwhile, regulators in Cambodia appealed to ISPs last January to censor anti-Khmer websites which unfortunately included the popular blog platform Blogspot. Blogspot’s only fault was that it seemed to be the preferred online portal of various opposition groups and critical media networks in Cambodia. Elsewhere in the region, bloggers were arrested in (surprise, surprise) Myanmar and Vietnam for their critical reporting of government programs.

Sex is also a taboo subject. An Indonesian Minister has threatened to block Blackberry for its alleged lack of porn filter. Furthermore, police are sometimes inspecting the phones of students in schools for porn content. The Philippines has passed a law that empowers telcos to monitor child pornography content in their networks.

Laws are being revised to arrest the perceived political and sexual perverts. Cybercriminals are the new terrorists. Internet regulation is intensely being proposed to correct the ‘irresponsible’ use of the internet. But the laws are sometimes unjustly being used against the innocent. Case in point is Prita, a young housewife from Indonesia who was charged with defamation after she sent an email complaining against a lousy service in a private hospital.

There are other obstacles in attaining internet freedom and they require immediate government attention and action. The basic issues are weak internet connectivity especially in remote areas, high cost because of dominance of profit oriented private players in the IT industry, and heavy state regulation. Recently, Myanmar banned VoIP services in internet cafés.

But the unfreedoms mentioned above can be effectively challenged through creative circumvention of restrictive laws and regulations. Strong social media campaigns have also helped in undermining the leadership of repressive regimes.

The most recent outstanding example of netizen activism or citizen media participation in the political sphere is the Bersih democracy movement in Malaysia. The event which was initially organized to ask for electoral reforms became a pro-democracy political action in the end because of the massive participation of the civilian population in the streets on one hand, and the exaggerated and violent reaction of the state on the other. Bersih is now the revolution’s name in Malaysia.

And social media was maximized to broaden Bersih’s appeal among the apolitical segments of the local internet community. More importantly, it gave Malaysians the opportunity to imagine the formation of a united and patriotic community of individuals committed to the defense of democracy.

Social media’s prominent role in Bersih proved that it’s more than a useful tool in elections exploited by politicians and professional political groups. It taught us that the intelligent use of social media can help us win more freedoms in the cyberspace and in the real world. To strengthen and spread internet freedoms, we need more Bersih-like movements.

2 Responses to “Southeast Asia: Internet freedoms and unfreedoms”

  1. It seems the virtual world began to be regarded as a latent peril.


  2. […] Internet freedoms and unfreedoms Sex and web censorship […]

    Mong Palatino » Blog Archive » Southeast Asia’s Internet Dilemma

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