Sex and the Censors in Asia

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Sex and the Censors in Asia

South-east Asian governments are increasingly censoring ‘immoral’ web content. Do they have political motivations as well?

Last February, the Indonesian government dropped plans to filter ‘bad’ content through its Multimedia Content Screening team after the plan met with strong public opposition. Yet, undeterred, it’s now reviving the proposal in the wake of a celebrity sex tape scandal that continues to shock young and old alike in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.

The government points to the ease of distribution the Internet offers, which has meant the tape of showbiz stars Nazril Irham and Luna Maya apparently having sexual intercourse has circulated widely since it was first uploaded. The controversy has provoked an outcry among conservative forces in the country who have called for more moral protection for young people, and the government has responded by moving to enforce an Internet blacklist enabled by an anti-pornography law passed two years ago.

Indonesia isn’t the only South-east Asian country to be rocked by such a scandal—there was a similar case in the Philippines last year, which paved the way for the passage of an anti-voyeurism law; lawmakers have also crafted a cybercrime bill. Today, posting of pictures depicting ‘sexual or other obscene or indecent acts’ on the Internet is now deemed a cybercrime offense.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, the government is proposing establishing a state-run exchange point that would allow it to control all local Internet service providers, a move supposedly aimed at strengthening Internet security against pornography, theft and other cybercrimes. The draft regulations are yet to be finalized, but the government is expected to seriously pursue the measure after it found itself powerless in a recent furore over illegally taped women bathing at a monastery.

In each of these cases, opposition to a tightening of the rules has been relatively subdued, in stark contrast to the outcry when South-east Asian governments make more overtly political censorship decisions.

Thailand earned cyber notoriety for becoming the first country in the world to shut down 100,000 websites for containing ‘dangerous’ material, and it famously punishes bloggers and website administrators for violating its strict lese majeste law. Vietnam, meanwhile, has been accused by Google and McAfee among others of launching cyber attacks against selected websites, including those that advocate opposition to bauxite mining, a controversial issue there.

Such moves usually elicit global condemnation among Internet users, media groups and human rights organizations. Governments can, of course, always ignore their noisy critics, but they risk losing international credibility (and business), meaning that governments with at least the trappings of democracy can’t afford to censor online media for extended periods.

So what can they do? Use the ruse of blocking ‘harmful’ websites instead.

Burma, which has some of the most draconian Internet regulations in the world, drew only mild protests from democracy groups after it used powers introduced by the ruling junta to ban two weekly journals for posting photos of female models in short pants.

This aggressive drive to eliminate sex and sexual images from the online world could be a symptom of the rising tide of conservatism in many South-east Asian nations. But it could also be because of recognition by governments that the fig leaf of protecting young people from harm also allows the introduction of potentially useful, tough checks on online freedoms.

Indeed, the morality card is being played to produce ‘desirable’ behavior among populations even when the strategy undermines respect for some of the region’s diverse cultures. When Indonesia passed its anti-pornography law, for example, Bali’s governor protested that the law runs contrary to local traditions where nude statues and erotic dances are still sometimes popular. Cambodia, for its part, blocked websites supposedly showing sexual images, including reahu.net’s artistic illustrations of ancient bare-breasted Apsara dancers and a Khmer Rouge soldier.

The problem for the public (but perhaps an advantage to governments) is the vague definitions of what constitute pornographic, indecent, immoral and obscene acts. Activists here in the Philippines are worried that the cybercrime bill I mentioned earlier would leave it solely to the government to decide what should be banned as ‘improper.’ Today, displaying certain body parts is immoral under the law, but tomorrow the state could decide that immoral or dangerous activity includes participating in certain anti-government rallies.

Now that governments have mastered the tools and techniques of censorship in the traditional media, they’re testing the limits of online regulation. And Indonesia’s efforts to enforce its blacklist will prove a useful test case:  Indonesia has more than 40 million Internet users and is acknowledged as the Twitter capital of Asia. If it succeeds in filtering web content, other countries in the region are expected to follow its model.

The potential benefits for governments with an authoritarian bent are obvious. Censorship not only reduces access to information—it also weakens the power of Internet users to form online groups of like-minded people. Even if web censorship has noble intentions, therefore, it’s still an unwelcome distraction for governments who would be better served coming up with more creative, realistic and less potentially nefarious rules for responsible Internet use.

If we want to protect our young people the solution is to educate them, their parents and their communities, and to provide them with relevant information about the potential risks of surfing the web. More information, not less, is what’s needed if governments really want to protect their people.