Reinforcing tenets of classic internet censorship

Most major internet companies, including Google, Meta, Netflix, TikTok, Apple and Twitter have effectively agreed to go along with the rules, for now.
Representative image
Representative image

I want us to consider the implications of this new reality: In three of the four most populous countries in the world, governments have now given themselves the power to order that the internet be wiped of citizens’ posts that the authorities don’t like. Indonesia — the world’s fourth-most populous country, and a democracy — is in the process of implementing what civil rights organisations say are overly broad regulations to demand removal of online speech that officials consider a disturbance to society or public order. Most major internet companies, including Google, Meta, Netflix, TikTok, Apple and Twitter have effectively agreed to go along with the rules, for now.

Indonesia’s regulations are another sign that strict online controls are no longer confined to autocratic countries like China, Iran, North Korea and Myanmar. They are also increasingly the realm of democracies that want to use the law and the internet to shape citizens’ discussions and beliefs.

In free societies, there has long been a tug of war over free speech and its limits. But one of the enduring questions of the online era is what governments, digital companies and citizens should do now that the internet and social media make it both easier for people to share their truth (or their lies) with the world and more appealing for national leaders to shut it all down.

What is happening in three of the world’s four largest countries — China, India and Indonesia; the U.S. is the 3rd largest — is simpler than that. It fits the classic definition of censorship. Governments are seeking to silence their external critics. Officials in Indonesia have said that their new regulations are needed to protect people’s privacy, delete online material that promotes child sexual abuse or terrorism, and make the internet a welcoming space to all.

Governments sometimes have legitimate reasons to shape what happens online, such as preventing the spread of dangerous misinformation. But Dhevy Sivaprakasam, Asia Pacific policy counsel for the global digital rights group Access Now, said Indonesia’s rules are a fig leaf used by the government to stifle journalism and citizen protests, with few checks on that power.

The regulations require all sorts of digital companies, including social media sites, digital payment and video game companies and messaging apps to constantly scan for online material that violates the law and pull it down within hours if discovered. Authorities also have the right to request user data, including people’s communications and financial transactions. Companies that fail to comply with the law can be fined or forced to stop operating in the country.

Indonesia’s regulations, which are new and haven’t been applied yet, “raise serious concerns for the rights to freedom of expression, association, information, privacy and security,” Sivaprakasam told me. Access Now has also called out other sweeping online censorship laws in Asia, including those in Vietnam, Bangladesh and India.

The original, utopian idea of the internet was that it would help tear down national boundaries and give citizens abilities they had never before had to challenge their governments. We saw a version of that, but then governments wanted more control over what happened online. “Governments are very powerful, and they don’t like to be displaced,” Mishi Choudhary, a lawyer who works on the rights of internet users in India, told me last year.

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