Asia tries to tie up the 'Net'

'Unchecked, it could create racial tension and disharmony'

THE booming nations of south-east Asia, whose economies are the fastest-growing in the world, are making the most ambitious attempt yet to control the flow of information on the Internet.

Information ministers of the seven countries in the Association of South- East Asian Nations (Asean) announced last week that they would set up a regulatory body to come up with "appropriate responses" to the Net. They expressed concern about pornography and "disinformation" on the Net which could create racial tension and disharmony. "The influx of objectionable materials via the new electronic media, if left unchecked, will undermine our values and traditions," George Yeo, Singapore's Information Minister, said on Thursday.

Two days earlier, his government had announced that it would license all companies which provide a link to the Internet. This, like a similar move announced by the Chinese government earlier this year, appears to put in place the apparatus for fairly effective censorship: a licensed provider can always have its licence withdrawn, and might be made responsible for the material it makes accessible.

Singapore has successfully controlled access to more conventional sources of information, restricting the circulation of publications which have displeased the authorities, such as the Economist and the Far East Economic Review. Satellite dishes are banned altogether. China's size prevents it from exercising the same control, but it has cracked down on the spread of satellite television. Under threat of losing the lucrative Chinese advertising market, Rupert Murdoch's Star-TV stopped transmitting BBC World Service Television to north-east Asia.

Singapore's decision to tighten Internet rules was not aimed at putting a cordon around information but to "channel and guide" the system, the Deputy Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said yesterday. There were dangers of completely uncontrolled discussions on sensitive subjects such as race, language and religion.

"It can be done through television, radio and the newspapers," he said. "With the Internet, it's a new medium and you are not quite sure how it will evolve. But potentially it can have a big impact on a large number of people, and very fast." Singapore was developing the Internet to meet its own Asian taste in "entertainment, information and communication".

Yet it is a truism of debate about the Internet that censorship is possible only at the source of information and not at its destination. "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it," said one pioneer.

Under pressure from prosecuting authorities earlier this year, two of the largest Internet providers in Germany tried to cut off access to various pornographic and neo-Nazi discussion areas of the Net. But this had no effect on university networks, and was easily circumvented by technically- minded users. Attempts to censor the neo-Nazi material in particular had the opposite effect - American enthusiasts for free speech reacted violently and rapidly spread copies of the offending material to many of the most distinguished US universities.

The availability of pornography on the Internet is the point at which proponents of Internet censorship push hardest, since it prevents societies applying their own local controls to what is acceptable or not. Baroness Thatcher said in Utah last week: "The dangers to children are enormous. We've got to block certain information ... or make it a crime, with heavy sentencing, to put certain things to the Internet."

As the German episode showed, however, even the most democratic countries differ on what constitutes acceptable political speech, let alone more authoritarian nations such as Singapore. And since everything is discussed on the Internet, from bass fishing to the philosophy of Sir Karl Popper, the number of subjects someone might want to censor is limitless.

The Internet has immense potential for disrupting authoritarian societies and is becoming fashionable in south-east Asia. Cyber-cafes are springing up all over the region, even in Sri Lanka, and the World Wide Web, the portion of Internet which is easy to navigate and use, is growing explosively.

Even if the censor can identify certain sites or discussion groups as containing prohibited material, there can be considerable problems in determining when someone is accessing them. The nature of the Internet means that it is easy to access a computer in Sweden from London via Ohio, San Francisco and Amsterdam. At each hop, the local laws are different, and without the co-operation of all the telecommunications companies carrying all of the traffic, it would be impossible to follow the progress of the call.

This implies that censorship on the Internet will always be the loosest available, since no country can impose its tighter laws on any other. Yet nations which turn their back on the Net will also probably exclude themselves from the front-rank economies of the 21st century, which will increasingly depend on the swift and unimpeded flow of information. It is a tricky bind for the Asean countries, whose brand of paternalistic capitalism has so far proved so successful.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
TVShow's twee, safe facade smashed by ice cream melting scandal
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
tv
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Rapidly developing and growing...

Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Rapidly developing and growing...

KS1 and KS2 Primary NQT Job in Lancaster Area

£85 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education is urgently...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?