Internet prods Asia to open up
China this week unveiled strict penalties for online porn distributors, but analysts see online freedom on the rise.
As the Internet sweeps across Asia, it is bringing with it a strong challenge to the region's authoritarian governments: a freer exchange of information and ideas.
Nowhere more so than in China, where the government has mounted a huge effort to filter Internet content. The "Great Firewall of China" is manned by at least 30,000 censors who blocked as many as 50,000 websites in the first half of 2002, according to a US State Department report on China's human rights.
Just this week, Beijing introduced stringent penalties against purveyors of Internet pornography, including life imprisonment for those behind major sites that receive more than 250,000 hits. "Pornographic" is left undefined.
Those who study the Internet and its impact on Asia say that although the region is rife with censorship efforts like those in China, freedom is relative and increasing by degrees. The free-wheeling and expansive nature of the online world has proved difficult to control, pushing Beijing and similar governments in the region to make concessions, much as they had to do in entering Western-style economics and trade, say analysts.
"The Internet will make any country freer," says Ang Peng Hwa, a professor at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. "If you have the Internet, you're connected to the world. If you want to be a part of the world, you have to play by the norms of the world. The world norms lean toward a freer Internet."
China's massive firewall is already showing cracks under the weight of the Internet's expansion. The pressure has come from innumerable sources, including an onslaught of weblogs, open-source directories, and projects like Wikipedia, an "open-content" encyclopedia.
Five years ago in China, most Western newspaper websites were blocked from viewing. Today, the Chinese censors who watch the Internet target more specific sites - chat forums on ultrasensitive topics like Tibetan liberation and the Falun Gong religious movement.
(Beijing does not actually label sites as "blocked." Instead, when a user clicks on a blocked site, the page will begin to load, slowly, and then the user is redirected either to an error message or back to a Chinese search engine.)
So while the average Chinese still can't walk into an Internet cafe in Ningbo and pull up the homepage of the Taiwan government, he can read The New York Times.
Even some sensitive topics, surprisingly, are readily available in China. A quick browse through Wikipedia's Chinese-language version for the "June 4, Tiananmen" entry offers a broad look at the Democracy movement of 1989 and its violent end. Without using any special software or proxy servers, a Chinese web user can view the famed photo of a lone man facing down tanks outside the square 15 years ago in Beijing.
As countries like China become more open to international business and globalization, gradually, "the Internet will become more open and the restrictions will become less onerous," says David Goldstein, an Internet policy consultant based in Sydney, Australia.
Residents of Asian countries are projected in the next few years to make up more than half of the world's online population.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, Internet freedom conditions vary and tend to mirror how individual governments have attempted censorship of other media - films, television, books, and radio programming - in years past. So far, the Internet is pushing boundaries in a positive manner, observers say.
"For countries which previously managed gatekeeping regimes, the Internet has been a constructive test of governments' assumptions" about controlling information, says Chin Saik Yoon, the Malaysia-based chief editor of the Digital Review of Asia Pacific. "Most have responded well, and information flows in these countries have been re-energized. This change has led to better engaged citizens and hopefully, in time, to more prosperous information societies."
But even advanced technology and widespread Internet access do not automatically equate with freedom, several organizations report.
South Korea, for instance, is often held up as a model for its foresight and investment that led to its becoming the world leader in broadband access. It's estimated that more than half of all South Koreans have Internet access and most of those who go online do so via broadband.
Yet South Korea is not above Net censorship. In July, two students were fined for violating national election laws by posting material online that mocked political candidates. Others in South Korea have been arrested for promoting communism via the Web, and the government blocked a reported 18,000 Web pages from public view last year, according to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
In its 2004 report "Internet Under Surveillance," RSF analyzed Internet censorship and filtering trends worldwide and gave troubling marks to most Asian countries. Only Japan and Taiwan earned positive grades for Internet freedom.
In Burma, the report says, public Internet connections are rare, "partly for reasons of poverty but mostly because of the military regime's harsh crackdown on freedom of expression." Totalitarian North Korea, likewise, offers no known public access to the Internet, a potential window onto the outside world. In heavily policed Vietnam, seven "cyberdissidents" are in prison.
Quite another experience is happening in Mongolia, where the government has used international grants to set up a widely-used open government forum. If they stick to basic courtesy, those with Internet access in the vast reaches of Mongolia can discuss public policy online, and be certain the prime minister will read the message boards at least once every two weeks. The forum's input is often discussed at Cabinet meetings and other policy-making venues.
While such gains are important, there is no guarantee that the Internet by itself will create a "freer" world overall, Yoon says. The outcome depends on how the medium is used and controlled - and by whom.
But, the Internet's flow of information, he says, "combined with satellite TV and international news channels has prodded national and local media to be more forthright in their coverage of local issues so as to compete with foreign sources."
In one prominent example, e-mail, mobile phone text messaging, and impossible-to-ignore world news coverage that made it to China in part via the Internet, are widely credited with forcing the central government to go public with the facts and scope of the 2002-03 SARS epidemic.
Greater openness has begun and will continue, if for no other reason than that it's just too large to stop, say analysts. Despite its firewall efforts, the Chinese government is not stopping people from buying PCs or signing up for cheap Internet access. The country has an estimated 87 million Internet users this year, nearly four times the number in 2000, according to the data website www.internetworldstats.com.
"It will become more flexible," Ang predicted. "To block things, you really need to deploy manpower and that is a costly proposal."
More Internet users are from Asia than from any other region. However, only a small - but growing - percentage of people in Asia actually have Internet access.
Region / % of population / % Of world
Africa: 1.4 % 1.5 %
Asia: 7.1 32.1
Europe: 30.7 28.1
Middle East: 6.5 2.1
North America: 68.6 27.9
Latin America/Caribbean: 9.4 6.3
Oceania: 48.5 2.0
Source: Internet World Stats