Freedom of online speech is threatened by intolerant populism



August 8th, 2010

Text of a speech given in Jakarta on Wednesday 4 August at a seminar on new media organised by the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Aliansi Jurnalis Independen, AJI), Indonesia’s main association for professional journalists, as part of the organisation’s 16th anniversary celebrations.

Controls on the Internet in Southeast Asia

It has been around 15 years since the world wide web reached across the globe and into our region. The revolution has not stopped and it is still extremely difficult to grasp this phenomenon. This is not a single new invention or application, but an entire platform or an ecosystem that generates repeated innovation.

One thing we have learnt over the past 15 years is to be cautious about our assessments, because clever people have been proven wrong about the internet so often.

Still, I think we can identify certain important patterns that continue to shape the way new media roll out.

First, it is clear that new media are not a magical or all-powerful technology that can defy the way the real world operates. Offline government and business power still matters, and offline social networks also matter a great deal. By and large, new media simply rearrange and selectively amplify old structures and old networks, without replacing them entirely.

Second, it is also clear that there is something special and generative about these technologies. Their open nature allows innovative new uses to be developed in unpredictable ways and by players that we can’t identify beforehand. So, every few years we are surprised by ways of using new media that seem to come from nowhere.

This is a very significant pattern if we are looking at censorship, because it suggests that every time regulators begin to find the answer to controlling a particular type of internet use, the question gets changed: a totally new way of doing things is developed and takes off before the government really understands it, thus requiring officials to go back to the drawing board.

To give a Singaporean example, it has taken a few years for the government to develop its policies towards blogs. But now social networking tools are becoming important, and these fall in regulatory grey areas.

To sum up my first two points, it looks as if power will continue to be concentrated in the hands of the few as it has been throughout human history, but that the new media will continue to provide spaces for independent expression, making it impossible for dominant interests to completely overwhelm marginal voices.

A third pattern that observers have identified has to do with modes of internet censorship. At first, some thought that censorship would be impossible. Then, we realised that nations could erect walls, which – even if not completely watertight – are quite effective in filtering what the majority of internet users in the country are exposed to. At least six Asian countries are reported to have blocked YouTube since 2007.

This blacklist-and-block approach at the national level was the first generation of internet controls. Censorship 2.0 is more sophisticated and often uses third parties and private sector partners to deny access to internet content. The methods include covert operations like distributed denial of service attacks, as well as getting major online service providers such as search engine companies or social networking sites to cooperate with governments.

These methods are harder to detect, which is important because when we consider censorship, it is not only restricted access to knowledge that is relevant. Censorship is also an opportunity for the victims to make the censors pay a political price. Censorship always has the potential to backfire on the censors: it can embarrass the state and diminish its legitimacy. However, if censorship is implemented in code by third parties, we may not even know about it. If censorship is not apparent, it cannot backfire.

A fourth point to make is that censoring online content is not the only tool of those who want to restrict the internet activism. Most countries use traditional offline laws, such as sedition in Malaysia and Singapore or lese majeste in Thailand.

This would come as a surprise to the early observers and optimists, who thought that the internet would provide a safe haven for dissent. What they did not consider is that in most countries, the most important independent voices on the internet are not anonymous but identifiable individuals who live within the community.

This is because if you want to make an impact, you have to have an offline presence. The internet influences our power to know, but the power to act still depends on traditional offline resources: the ability to get things done in the real world. You cannot confine politically meaningful internet activity to cyberspace. So, the internet is usually just one link a chain of actions.

But this also means that government can intervene at any point on that chain, online or offline. Internet censorship does not have to take place on the internet. In the offline world, the state and businesses still have their traditional powers.

Finally, I would like to make an observation about the political climate for censorship. When the world wide web first arrived in the mid-1990s, the spirit of the times was strongly in favour of organising the internet according to the principles of liberty and democracy. I do not mean that actual regimes were democratic at that point, but that there was an intellectual climate and a global norm that made it uncomfortable for governments to censor the internet. This was why even Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammed felt compelled at the time to guarantee that there would be no censorship of the internet, and Singapore promised that only a symbolic list of 100 pornographic sites would be blocked.

Fifteen years later, the climate is less hospitable. Liberty online must now contend with competing values. The first of these threat is the post-9/11 premium on security. Liberal democracies have reoriented their priorities and have been prepared to sacrifice some of their individual liberties in return for more peace of mind. This shift has in turn provided cover to authoritarian regimes who now feel less apologetic about censoring the internet. In between are many states who can now impose restrictions that are not even noticed abroad because such actions are no longer treated as newsworthy.

The second challenge to liberty comes from a surprising source: not the state but the public. This is the observation that I’d like to end on. There is a pattern affecting many parts of Asia that we can call populist intolerance. This is the dark side of people power. We usually think of the power of the masses as something that is always aligned with the forces of freedom. Yet, there are many examples of the majority being willing to restrict the freedoms of the minority or of individuals.

Sometimes, these forces are expressed as nationalism, sometimes as religious zeal, sometimes as moral panic on behalf of family values. So the language may vary, but the dynamics do not. People feel insecure about rapid and alienating social changes. Those with unpopular views – views that are regarded as “dangerous” – are marginalised by an intolerant majority that is confident of its superior numbers.

Interestingly, in such situations the internet is often used to spotlight those people or beliefs that are deemed unacceptable, and the internet is also used to mobilise the masses against those individuals or groups, and to either demand the state to take action against these unpopular views, or to stand aside as the masses take their own action through vigilantism or mob violence.

Over the last 20 years, our societies have become much more attached to the idea of majority rule. The internet has contributed to this sense of empowerment. We know we have the power to say what we think. However, we have not advanced as much in our respect for the rights of others to think and act differently from us. The internet is exposing us to difference without necessarily increasing our appreciation for difference. I fear that intolerant populism may emerge as one of the main threats to internet freedom.

For this reason, I believe that one of the main challenges facing those of us who want to preserve and extent internet freedoms is to persuade our fellow citizens of the case for more tolerant societies. We need to promote not just our individual right to expression the ideas we like, but also stand up for the rights of those who express ideas we don’t like.

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