Southeast Asia: Sex and web censorship

Regulating internet content today is viewed as an anti-democratic practice but Southeast Asian governments seem able to justify it by invoking the need to save the young from the scourge of indecent sexual behavior.

Indonesia’s plan to filter web of “bad” content through its Multimedia Content Screening team was shelved last February after it was opposed by the public. Today, the proposal is being revived in the wake of a celebrity sex tape scandal which continues to shock both the young and old in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. After enacting an anti-pornography law two years ago, Indonesia now wants to enforce an internet blacklist in response to the demand of conservative voices to protect the morals of the young.

A similar celebrity sex scandal hounded the Philippines last year which paved the way for the passage of an anti-voyeurism law. The internet was also blamed for the instant dissemination of the sex tapes which prodded lawmakers to craft a cybercrime bill.

In Cambodia, the government is proposing to establish a state-run exchange point to control all local internet service providers which is intended to strengthen internet security against pornography, theft and other cybercrimes. The draft regulation is not yet final but it is expected that the government will seriously pursue this measure especially after it recently became almost helpless in stopping the cell phone and internet uploading of an illegally taped video of nude ladies bathing in a monastery.

Southeast Asian governments do no always need sex scandals to censor the web since they can always cite other reasons, like national security, to filter and monitor internet content. For example, Thailand became the first country in the world to shut down 100,000 websites for containing “dangerous” material. It punishes bloggers, writers and website administrators for violating the lese majeste law. Vietnam was accused by Google and McAfee of launching cyber attacks against some websites, specifically websites that advocate opposition to bauxite mining, a controversial issue in the country.

But politically-driven internet regulation often encounters strong opposition from internet users and it always elicits condemnation around the world, especially from media groups and human rights organizations. Governments can always ignore the noisy critics but they will also lose credibility. Governments with democratic trappings cannot afford to censor the online media for an extended period. But regulating the web to stop pornography and other immoral acts somehow generates only a whisper of protest. It has become the safest ruse to block “harmful” websites. Myanmar’s internet regulation policy has been identified as one of the draconian measures imposed by the ruling junta but its decision to ban two weekly journals for posting photos of female models in short pants didn’t draw the normal level of opposition from democracy groups.

The aggressive drive to eliminate sex and sexual imageries in the online domain may be a symptom of the rising tide of conservatism in many Southeast Asian nations. The morality card is being played to produce desirable attitudes, sentiments and behavior among the population even if this strategy disrespects the diverse cultures in the region. When Indonesia passed the anti-porn law, the Bali governor protested since the law is contrary to the local tradition where making historic nude statues and erotic dances are sometimes still popular. When Cambodia blocked websites showing pornography or sexy images, it included for containing artistic illustrations of ancient bare-breasted Apsara dancers and a Khmer Rouge soldier.

Another problem is the vague definition of what constitutes images and actions that are pornographic, indecent, immoral, and obscene. Filipino activists are worried that the cybercrime bill would now make it unlawful to publish or upload materials that contradict the official state interpretation of what is decent, moral, and proper.

Governments have mastered the tools and techniques of censorship in the traditional media. They are now testing the limits of online regulation. Indonesia’s plan to enforce an internet blacklist should be monitored because of its impact in the region. Indonesia has more than 40 million internet users and it is acknowledged as the Twitter capital of Asia. If Indonesia succeeds in filtering web content, other countries in the region are expected to follow this model.

Web censorship does not only cut access to information; it also weakens the power of internet users to form online solidarities. To really protect the young and innocent, the best solution is to give them, their parents, and the community in general, the proper education and relevant information about the potential and risks of surfing the web.

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