March 3, 2016 | By Jillian York

The State of Free Expression Online in Southeast Asia

Threats to free expression are again on the rise all over the world. As a recent TechCrunch piece outlines, these threats are being felt acutely in Southeast Asia, an ethnically, politically, and linguistically diverse region which includes, Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam. Taken as a whole, the region has nearly twice the population of US, with over 600 million inhabitants. Recent statistics estimate there are currently more than 160 million Internet users, and with the rise of affordable cellular data plans, tech infrastructure investment and competition amongst carriers, this number is sure to rise dramatically by 2020.

Unfortunately, the region is no stranger to Internet censorship. In 2007, Myanmar became one of the first countries in the world to shut down access to the Internet during protests. Thailand has for many years blocked access to a range of political websites, often under their lèse-majesté laws. Defamation prosecutions against critics of the military junta and King are common. Meanwhile, the region’s more sparsely-populated countries—like Cambodia and the ironically-named Lao People's Democratic Republic—carefully monitor what their citizens are doing and saying online.

Increasingly, online intermediaries are getting pulled into the mix. Last month, popular blogging platform Medium was censored by the Malaysian government after refusing an order to take down a post by critical news outlet Sarawak Report. Because the platform encrypts all traffic by default, Malaysian authorities were forced to block the entire domain, rather than just the post itself.

The list of censored international technology companies continues in the case of LINE, the Japanese-produced messaging app, which has faced censorship in both Thailand and Indonesia. The Thai government, which came to power in 2014 through a military coup, has pressured LINE (as well as Facebook) to comply with court orders demanding the removal of content it considers "harmful to peace and order." A report from Reuters also notes that the number of people arrested for criticizing the monarchy has risen in recent months.

In Indonesia—where only about sixteen percent of the country’s 249.9 million population uses the Internet—companies are under pressure to censor LGBTQ content, which the government is concerned "could potentially cause public unrest". LINE has already capitulated to the government’s demands, pulling LGBTQ-related stickers from its online store in early February. Indonesia’s Communications and Information Ministry issued a statement saying:

The ministry is appreciative of LINE Indonesia for its understanding and discretion in dealing with matters that could potentially cause public unrest, especially the concerns of mothers for their children in terms of the negative influence the circulation of these LGBT stickers could cause.

EFF has long been critical of American companies that choose to open offices in countries where they will be forced to give in to demands of censorship. Although LINE is a Japanese company, the same principle—not censoring content that would be allowed in your own country—should apply.

This principle becomes more important when we consider the role that large intermediaries play in governing our speech and our right to privacy. In reference to Myanmar, it is often said that Facebook is the Internet. Because the country restricted access substantially for so long, many of the country’s half million Internet users are new users, and many rely on Facebook as their primary source of news and information. That popularity translates in a lot of responsibility for the platform, which has the power to control what users can see.

As Internet penetration climbs in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, and American and other companies reach out to these new markets, we must continue to ensure that they act responsibility and protect the rights of all users. This means both pushing back against governments when they seek to repress their populations as well as creating and implementing policies in the interest of privacy and free expression.


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