Classic internet censorship

Classic Internet Censorship
New regulations in Indonesia show that strict online controls are no longer confined to autocratic countries like China. (Photo: NYTimes)
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 authorities do not like.اضافة اعلان

Indonesia — the world’s fourth-most populous country, and a democracy — is in the process of implementing what civil rights organizations 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 US is the third 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 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 have not been applied yet, “raise serious concerns for the rights to freedom of expression, association, information, privacy, and security,” Sivaprakasam said.

Access Now has also called out other sweeping online censorship laws in Asia, including those in Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India.

It gets more complicated trying to decide what to do about these laws. Companies in technology and other industries tend to say they are required to comply with the laws of the countries in which they operate, but they do push back sometimes, or even pull out of countries such as Russia, arguing that the laws or governments’ interpretations of them violate people’s fundamental freedoms.

Access Now and other rights groups have said that companies should not bow to what they say are violations of international human rights and other norms in Indonesia.

Executives of US internet companies have said privately that the US government should do more to stand up to overly strict government controls over online expression, rather than leave it up to Google, Apple, Meta, and Twitter alone. They say US companies should not be put in a position of trying to independently defend citizens of other countries from abuses by their own governments.

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.

Our challenge, then, is to make room for governments to act in the public interest to shape what happens online when necessary, while calling them out when authorities abuse this right in order to maintain their own power.

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