This fourth session of the webinar series on Digital Technologies and Democracy in Southeast Asia discussed the various manifestations of cyber-controls and online censorship in Southeast Asia, and examined their effects on online political debates as well as the responses of netizens.
MEDIA, TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY PROGRAMME & INDONESIA STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Digital Technologies and Democracy in Southeast Asia
Monday, 12 October 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar on “Cyber-controls and Censorship: The End of Democratic Space Online?”. The webinar is part of a seven-part Webinar Series co-organised by the Media, Technology and Society Programme and the Indonesia Studies Programme on “Digital Technologies and Democracy in Southeast Asia”.
Moderated by Dr Benjamin Loh (ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute), the webinar featured the insights of Mr Damar Juniarto (Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network), Mr Arnoud Zwemmer (University of Amsterdam), Mr Arthit Suriyawongkul (Foundation for Internet and Civic Culture; Thai Netizen Network), and Mr Dien Nguyen An Luong (ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute). The speakers discussed the various manifestations of cyber-controls and online censorship in Southeast Asia, and examined their effects on online political debates as well as the responses of netizens.
The webinar began with Mr Damar Juniarto’s presentation on “Internet Shutdown in Indonesia: The New Normal Policy to Censor Information Online?”. Mr Juniarto discussed the impetus and implications of the rising internet shutdown incidents in Indonesia. He noted the increasing prevalence of the adoption of internet censorship and controls in certain parts of Indonesia, specifically Papua and Jakarta in maintaining political stability. However, the increase in internet censorship and control laws are not without its implications. Mr Juniarto highlighted the consequences of internet shutdowns on Indonesia’s economic, journalism, healthcare and public services sector. He said that the implications have been particularly salient for small and medium enterprises who were gravely affected by the reduction in online business transactions. Indonesia’s internet shutdowns have also impacted the economic sector which resulted in increasing pushbacks in the society, such as through online petitions, mass protests, and lawsuits. In closing, Mr Juniarto expressed his concerns over the future of Indonesia’s censorship and cyber landscape where internet shutdowns might become more prevalent not only in Jakarta and Papua, but also other parts of Indonesia.
In his presentation titled “The Unevenness of Internet Controls in Malaysia”, Mr Arnoud Zwemmer discussed the landscape of internet controls in Malaysia against the backdrop of Malaysia’s shifting political governance. Mr Zwemmer analysed the extent and various ways in which state actors in Malaysia asset sovereignty over ‘national’ internet in attempts to secure political stability. He observed that internet controls in Malaysia could be broadly categorised into three categories: visible (concerning censorship, laws and cyber troopers), invisible (surveillance by the Islamic state that focuses on issues on terrorism) and incomplete (largely owing to power struggles in recent politics). In closing, Mr Zwemmer offered insights into the implications of 2018 Malaysia’s elections on the country’s political and Internet landscape.
Mr Arthit Suriyawongkul shared his insights about the evolving cyber tactics against dissidents in Thailand. In light of the increasing numbers of content creators in Thailand, Mr Suriyawongkul observed numerous shifts in the authorities’ internet governance approaches. Even though the top-down control of information flows has been around in Thailand since the pre-internet era, Mr Suriyawongkul said that the modes of control have changed from targeting at the content level to the network level. He argued that this shift in internet governance is in part owing to the rising recognition of the economic value of content creators in Thailand, which prompted the authorities to target networks that have greater transmission of information from content providers to users. Notwithstanding these transformations in Thailand’s internet landscape, Mr Suriyawongkul shared examples about the creative strategies that its netizens have employed to circumvent the country’s stricter internet controls such as the production and distribution of symbolic items on internet marketplace.
Mr Dien Nguyen An Luong presented his webinar on “Online Censorship and Circumvention in Vietnam”, and he shared his analyses on the changing censorship landscape in Vietnam. He noted that Vietnam authorities have so far relied heavily on what could be known as the fear-based model of censorship. Mr Luong said that legal deterrence has been a key approach of Vietnam’s fear-based censorship, where various laws and decrees on Internet controls – such as the passage of the Cyber-Security Law (2018) – have been enacted since 2008. Mr Luong also pointed out the implications brought about by the authorities’ heavy reliance on fear-based censorship laws. One of such implications concerns the growing distance between the masses and political authorities as a result of the greater restrictions on masses’ freedom of expression in cyberspace. Mr Luong observed that there has been a slow but growing shift towards other censorship approaches such as the deployment of friction mechanisms and flooding of information access and distribution. In closing, Mr Luong shared insights about Vietnam netizens’ experiences of cyberspace and the rise of digital activism amidst Vietnam’s longstanding internet status quo.
The webinar concluded with a Question and Answer session. The online audience engaged the speakers on a variety of issues which include the threat posed by internet shutdown and the spread of fake or hoax news to democracy; Southeast Asia’s non-interference position in issues concerning internet censorship and democracy; and the role of the government in the management of online expression and impacts on political legitimacy in Southeast Asia.