Most Asian nations realizing Internet cannot be tamed

Sep 15, 2011, 5:30 p.m.
A policeman looks at journalists filming during the verdict hearing of Chinese rights activist Wang Lihong outside a courthouse in Beijing, September 9, 2011. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic

"The expansive controls on online speech established in South Korea lack oversight and prevent citizens from accessing valuable expressive, historical, political and artistic online content," the letter said.

Singapore blocks a symbolic list of 100 mostly pornographic sites but does not to bar any site for political content. And despite strict controls on open political discussion, it allowed freewheeling criticism of government policies in the run-up to general elections this year.

The ruling People's Action Party easily won the election, but it scored its lowest ever percentage of the vote, and the opposition made historic gains.

Neighboring Malaysia pledged in 1996 not to impose controls on the Internet and was rewarded with investments from foreign technology companies such as Microsoft Corp and Cisco Systems.

The decision led to vibrant online political commentary. Analysts say the government had since quietly considered some form of filters on the debate, but decided against it.

"The government feels largely helpless in trying to manage online dissent because methods such as threatening to close down newspapers and targeting bloggers makes netizens angrier and more likely to lash out against the government," said Ong Kian Ming, who teaches at UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur.

"Netizens have clearly been emboldened and it is hard to see how the government can try to turn this tide without reaping a lot of negative reaction," said Ong.

Across much of Asia, the feeling is growing that imposing any sort of controls on online political debate backfires.

"Usually all it does is draw attention to the person and the message, who tend to be small players anyway," said Cherian George, an associate professor at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

"The general pattern is that the blogger who gets censored becomes far more famous than he otherwise might be.

"The only situation where it might work in the short-term would be highly volatile, fast-moving situations. Governments can shut down all communications during violence or a riot, but this can't be a long-term solution."

(Reporting by Charmian Kok and Kevin Lim in Singapore Jeremy Laurence in Seoul; Annie Banerji in New Delhi and Razak Ahmad in Kuala Lumpur Editing by Brian Rhoads)

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