McKenzie Wark on Sun, 30 Apr 2000 08:52:30 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Asia's Cyber Censors

Web of intrigue: Asia's Cyber Censors
Louise Williams
Sydney Morning Herald

The freedom of the Internet threatens Asia's information-controlling
authoritarian states. Yet, as Louise Williams reports, they also want to

be at the forefront of the IT revolution sweeping the world.

Information is power, or so the enduring dictators of history have
understood. The authoritarian, or quasi-authoritarian regimes, of the
post-colonial era in Asia have understood well the relationship between
control over information and political power.

In so many of Asia's capitals - from Beijing to Jakarta, from Rangoon to

Hanoi, the scene was much the same. In obscure back rooms, rows of desks

were lined up, their surfaces rubbed smooth by years of diligent effort,

as the faceless agents of authoritarian states dutifully pored over
newspapers and magazines.

Carefully, the swarms of censors cut out "subversive" articles from
abroad, one by one, or bent low over "offensive" captions and
and blacked them out by hand. They laboured over their own newspapers,
too, erasing hints of rebellion and allusion to unpalatable truths
within the reams of propaganda which served as their societies' only
sources of information.

When the Soeharto regime came to power in Indonesia in the mid-1960s it
shipped 10,000 of its artists, writers, unionists and activists off to a

barren, isolated island called Buru where it imposed total censorship.
Inmates, many of whom spent more than a decade eking out a living from
the poor soil, were denied reading material and access to the tools of
writing - pens, pencils, paper, typewriters - so that they would be
unable to transmit their ideas even among themselves.

Take a leap forward three decades to last May when the IT Security Unit
of Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs quietly wandered into the files
of 200,000 private computers in what was later explained as an effort to

trace a damaging virus.

The breach was detected by a private computer enthusiast, forcing the
Government to announced that SingNet, the Internet arm of the largely
state-owned telecommunications giant, SingTel, had been "wrong" to use
the state security apparatus to conduct the scan without first seeking
permission from individual users. Better security was promised in the

But for the citizens of a nation accustomed to government intervention
almost every aspect of their daily lives, the scanning scare had already

aptly demonstrated the potential for any one of their business or home
computers to be externally monitored without their knowledge.

Similarly, in 1994 an over-zealous technocrat had instructed another
local Internet provider to scan 80,000 email accounts of university
researchers, an unlikely group to be specifically targeted in a remote
hunt for pornographic material.

Within the high-rise towers of Singapore's economic success sit hundreds

of thousands of computers in one of the world's most technologically
advanced nations. Recent government statistics claim 42 per cent of
Singaporean households are linked to the Internet, and 59 per cent have
home computers, the highest participation rate in Asia. In Australia 22
per cent of homes have Internet access (47 per cent of them with home
computers) and in Japan 13 per cent (42 per cent with home computers).

Just completed is a nationwide broadband Internet system, called
Singapore One, delivering bedazzling at-home services such as immediate
access to traffic speeds on any street, thanks to global positioning
systems set in all the nation's taxis, online schools, movies on demand
and live news which the system "remembers" and can be rewound.

Conventional narrow-band Internet connections, such as the ones most of
us use, are free, various government agencies, libraries and private
companies offer banks of PCs to anyone who walks in off the street and
regular community education programs are held to encourage Singaporeans
to embrace the IT age.

For decades Singapore has fascinated political observers with its
apparently contradictory mix of free-wheeling market capitalism and
political controls; with information controls to match. Tough press
licensing regulations, internal security provisions and the use of
punitive defamation laws have fashioned a local media which often looks
and sounds like a government mouthpiece, and a society built around the
smooth swoosh of escalators within expansive shopping malls, not the
abrasive clamour of public debate.

At present, the Singapore Government blocks 100 Internet sites, but
admits this is only a token, and highly ineffective, effort to control a

technology which is the equivalent of information chaos.

The Internet is clearly the most profound challenge yet for national
governments which have used information control as one of the key
to maintaining political power.

And now, as Singapore gears up to transform its economy into one of the
world's key IT hubs, it is proving a crucial test case for other
like-minded regimes in the region - China, Vietnam and Malaysia, for
example - as to how governments might handle the threat from cyberspace.

Has information technology - which has taken the control of
outside national borders and thrown it into an anarchic global arena -
already effectively defeated censorship? As such, will the power of the
remaining governments of the region which continue to use censorship as
an important political tool inevitably be eroded?

Or will governments be able to limit the impact of the Internet by using

"national security" laws, building higher and higher "firewalls" or
turning the technology back on its users, employing it as a giant
surveillance device?

Already one regional government has fallen, with the help of the
as a mobilising tool for student demonstrations and a source of daily
alternative information: the Soeharto Government of Indonesia in May

Everyday in Malaysia, opposition opinions speed across the Net; sites
such as offer the juiciest rumours around on corrupt
business deals with personal scandals to match.

>From the United States, China is bombarded with anti-Beijing propaganda

on the Net; senior politburo members feature prominently on the mailing
lists just to demonstrate that the tables are being turned on a regime
which has specialised in propaganda itself. Vietnam is busy trying to
screen all incoming and outgoing email through a central censor. Hanoi
has bought "firewalls" designed in the US for corporate use and
them across the national network. Yet in cybercafes, groups of computer
geeks have discovered they can occasionally breach them by simply
cancel over and over again.

The hermit state of Burma has responded by banning the Internet
altogether, choosing autarchy for its already impoverished citizens over

the risk information technology poses to the military regime.

In Communist Party-controlled Laos, the official local newspaper
made a serious tactical error in the battle for its readers' minds. A
group of Lao dissidents in the US had "borrowed" the newpaper's masthead

and set up an opposition version of the daily news, posting it on the
Web. The Vientiane Times disowned the copycat with outraged
in its own pages, merely sending more and more curious readers off to
While the power of information might be a grave threat to many of Asia's

rulers, it is also economic growth.

Modern economies require sophisticated communication technology and the
transmission of sophisticated ideas. Clumsy attempts at information
control have been recorded along the way in the most authoritarian of

The invention of the facsimile prompted Hanoi's communist leaders to
order each outgoing and incoming fax to pass physically through the
of the censors, who sat out of sight upstairs in "fax centres" waiting
for trays of letters to be sent up using pulleys. In Burma, where fax
machines must be registered before use, the acting honorary consul for
several European countries, Leo Nichols, is still languishing in jail,
convicted of owning an unregistered machine.

But the spectacular advances in information technology have rendered the

censors of the past, with their quaint armoury of scissors and thick
black pens, and their "secret reading rooms", obsolete. New battle lines

are being drawn for control of the Internet, but the speed and mode of
transmission and the sheer volume of information flashing around the
globe means this is a much more difficult line to hold.

In the evolution of information controls the Internet is not just the
next incremental development in information technology.

"It is an astonishingly large, quantum leap," said Geoff Huston, one of
Australia's foremost Internet experts and a member of the Internet
Architecture Board.

"All the other forms of communication are simple, one-trick ponies
compared with the Internet. The telephone is just for voice, TV is just
for TV, but the architecture of the Internet means it is for any of
things - sound, images, video - and the network itself doesn't interfere

with what is moving across it."

For national governments built on information control the challenge is
immense, argued Roland Rich, co-editor of the recent book Losing
Freedom of the Press in Asia (Asia Pacific Press) and director of the
Centre for Democratic Institutions at the Australian National

"The Internet allows people to bypass the political leadership of the
country and to speak to each other directly. It is by definition
anarchic, and of course it is often inaccurate, but nevertheless it
people freedom of expression.

"What we are seeing in the region is a spectrum of responses from
governments that fear the Internet, from outright bans in North Korea
Burma, to a range of ways of attempting to control what information is
available on the Net.

"China has recently announced all sites must be registered and is using
criminal laws to try to control access. Singapore has adopted a more
sophisticated approach by working through the servers to enter people's
individual computers."

National governments have built systems of information control around
national borders and using national telecommunications systems.

The Internet is borderless, allowing groups from outside to beam message

into individual nations. It is also an English-based technology
by Western ideas.

Most of the huge volumes of information whizzing around the world is not

political, nor of any interest to governments or most Net users.

Some is of interest to censors because it exceeds the limits of moral
tolerance within societies, such as pornography and violence. And some
it is of interest because it is perceived to undermine government's hold

of power, either by promoting opposing ideas or by specifically seeking
to mobilise opposition.

"Clearly the most comfortable situation for a one-party state is to
monopolise all information. But the problem with the information-based
economy is that new ideas will be lateral. You can't try to corral
information flow so that you only let through ideas about food
technology, for example," said Rich.

"The problem with 20th-century ideas of information control is that the
21st-century economy is based on information flow. The same problems we
had with central planning and control over the industrial economy in the

20th century will recur with the central control of the information
economy in the 21st century.

Technically, said Huston, the concept of control contradicted the very
structure of the Internet.

"With the telephone, the handset was just a piece of plastic and the
lines in the middle were doing the work. The Internet is essentially a
dumb network, it is the computers at each end that matter, the network
itself just shifts data around the world without knowing what is going

"To contol the packets of information on the Internet would be a bit
trying to find out what was inside individual cars by controlling the
road system; you would have to stop each car, open it and look inside
so the efficiency and free flow of your traffic would be wrecked."

In general, private corporations use "firewalls" which screen out all
sites, except those being used for their business, partly to stop
employees wasting time and partly to protect their commercial interests.

Firewall systems used by national governments usually allow access to
Web with a specific list of exclusions, which requires the IT security
agents to know what they are looking for. These systems are easy to
subvert with tricks as simple as renaming, then "spamming" the new site
to tens of thousands of users.

"If there is one party on one side of a firewall and another party on
other side and they want to talk to each other and they try quite hard,
they will probably subvert it," said Huston.

"The best solution is not necessarily deploying technology to answer a
social problem. If the wall is made higher then people will build a
higher ladder.

"And blocking sites attaches to them the cache of being forbidden fruit
and then the game of subversion becomes even more important than the

James Gomez knows he is being watched. But, for the 35-year-old former
student activist and political scientist from the University of
Singapore, the Net is a "soap box" which wasn't available to him in the

His "politics21" Web site talks about vague democratic ideas for
Singapore; pushing the boundaries of acceptable political challenges to
the Government but staying within legal limits of various internal and
national security regulations. His main beef these days is that
has become such a cowed and complacent society over the years that
censorship, as such, really isn't necessary any more because everyone
self-censors as a matter of course.

"I recognise that when you go on the Net you are being watched. In that
sense it becomes a skewed medium because it allows your opponents to
you and it makes surveillance easier for regimes which rely on
individuals," he said.

"But the Net is an open space, you don't have to compete for space in a
newspaper or magazine, for example, you have all the space you want."

In Singapore, he said, "everyone is playing the game", the authorities
and their critics alike. Government critics believe some anti-Government

material is posted by the intelligence services, just to monitor who
reads it. Critics, too, make sure they send their views straight to
intelligence officials, just to demonstrate they know how to find them.

Singapore has always been an interesting case study in Asia.

Its founding prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew, successfully promoted the
of "Asian values" in politics in the 1980s and early '90s by arguing
Western democracies did not understand the structure of Asian societies
nor what political systems were appropriate for them.

Lee's view was essentially that developing economies could not afford
disruption that individual rights of free speech entailed. "What is the
use of screaming in the slums," he was fond of saying, singling out the
democratic Philippines as an example of the failure of a Western
political model in Asia which had brought only dire poverty to the

In Singapore, as in Malaysia and Indonesia, Taiwan and South Korea,
individual rights were suspended in the name of economic development;
right of an individual to housing, employment and food was greater than
the right of an individual to criticise the regime in power. Communist
Party-controlled regimes in China and Indo-China felt no such
to respond to their Western critics.

Naturally, combined with economic success came the downside of regimes
who are accountable only to themselves; in varying degrees corruption, a

growing gap between the rich and poor and systems of advancement based
connections not merit have marred Asia's one-party states.

Since the mid-1980s the political map of Asia has changed dramatically;
with pro-democracy forces pushing out authoritarian governments in the
Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Taiwan, leaving Lee's
neat theory of "Asian values" looking somewhat frayed or at least out of


Singapore in 2000, said Associate Professor Bernard Tan, chairman of the

National Internet Advisory Committee, "is very concerned about what is
coming across the Internet".

"But, at the same time we want to make sure that the Internet flowers as

an industry and it is very important that content regulation is done in
an enlightened way so that Internet usage grows."

Singapore's initial plans for heavy-handed controls on the Net so
IT companies that its national ambition of becoming an IT hub - and
especially a showcase of e-commerce - seemed under threat.

"We have advised the Government to use a 'light touch', they don't have
to look at every page every day," Tan said of why the regulations were
loosened to block only 100 sites.

At Singapore's high-tech Science Park, officials are keen to explain
the Western press has exaggerated censorship on the Net. The discussion
is steered towards non-political blocks on pornography and violence to
protect children and gee-whiz demonstrations of the extraordinary power
of Singapore One. Surveillance, as a control tool, is not discussed.

George Yeo, Singapore's Trade and Industry Minister, told a recent
conference in Hong Kong: "The Internet will reduce government's ability
to restrain you to a set of behaviour. We just symbolically block off a
few sites to make a point."

Yeo also told the conference that Singapore had been advising teams of
senior officials from China on Internet controls. Vietnam is also
believed to have sent officials to Singapore.

"I was a student leader 10 years ago, but I didn't have this opportunity

to embrace political issues through this medium, so now we have to milk
it for what it is worth," said Gomez.

The question, though, is whether the availability of new ideas will be
translated into new political challenges to the incumbent regime.

In Singapore, where rapid economic growth has turned a tiny island
by mangrove swamps into a modern city state in three decades,
is high. Singapore's citizens are relatively wealthy, the state provides

housing, health care, education and a range of public services;
opposition figures have a lot to lose.

"The idea that by simply availing yourself of the Internet you are
availing yourself of subversive material is far from the truth. And even

if you are accessing subversive material people have to decide whether
not they want use it," said Associate Professor Garry Rodan, from the
Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University.

"To challenge a regime people must first be in a position to decide,
on balance, they have little to lose," said Rodan.

"I am the Web master of, a Web site which supports the
process of political and social reform in Malaysia. FreeMalaysia is one
of 50 such sites on the Internet," said an anonymous letter sent to the
pro-Government New Straits Times newpaper in Kuala Lumpur late last

"As a conduit of free expression, the Internet has played a pivotal role

in the recent political awakening of Malaysia. One measure of the impact

... is the Government's increasing aggressiveness against the
[reform] phenomenon and those supporting it."

Shortly before the letter was sent, freeMalaysia was labelled a "threat
to national security" by the Mahathir Government and the ruling UNMO
party announced it had identified 48 Web sites containing "slanderous
defamatory" material which would be investigated.

FreeMalaysia promises to provide "the sort of free speech which is next
to impossible to find ANYWHERE in the traditional print and broadcast

But Malaysia has not shut the Net down.

Malaysia, like Singapore, has big high-tech ambitions; in Mahathir's
a $US20 billion ($33.6 billion)"multimedia super corridor" which is
supposed to end at the Petronas Twin Towers, the world's tallest
buildings in downtown Kuala Lumpur. International telecommunications
companies have expressed their concerns about potential Net control and
the "super corridor" is lagging well behind schedule, prompting Mahathir

to announce that the Net would be free.

Instead, in December 1998, the Malaysian Government ordered cybercafes
register users and provide that information to police.

And, unlike Singapore, where the political waters have been virtually
becalmed for decades, Malaysia is in the throes of a bitter political
tussle over jailed former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. The Net,
political observers say, now serves as the main source of news for much
of the middle class; a hotch potch of scandal, opinion, rumour, innuendo

and truth. As such, the staid broadsheets like the New Straits Times can

simply be ignored. Mahathir has the upper hand but a significant,
educated opposition has formed around Anwar and a new "uncensored"
online newspaper Malaysiakini is already boasting 50,000 hits a day.

Less than two years ago, the Soeharto regime in Indonesia was suddenly
confronted with the power of the Net. For years, Indonesian
oppositionists in exile in the US had been cobbling together critical
stories and sending them back home to a confidential list of users. In a

nation with few computers, the stories were photocopied and distributed
by hand. A crude anti-Soeharto home page, with a picture of the old man
defaced with blood, was set up by intelligence officials to catch those
on the Net. Most ignored the warning that anyone accessing the site
be tracked by military intelligence.

In truth - with the national economy in free-fall and millions of new
unemployed on the streets - the Net could not be controlled by an
underpaid, impoverished Ministry of Information, itself barely equipped
with typewriters. Instead, the Net and mobile phones became the
mobilising instruments of student demonstrations; times and places were
posted as well as appeals to business people, who could see the end
coming, to show what side they were on and send food and water for the
long, hot protests.

"Power grows out of the barrel of a gun," said Chairman Mao Zedong of
success of China's communist revolution.

"Yet it is equally accurate to say that power grows out of, and is
sustained by, the nib of a pen," argued Hong Kong-based China
commentator, Willy Wo-Lap Lam.

"Propaganda, through the heavy-handed manipulation of the media," Lam
said, has been just as powerful in upholding the "mandate of heaven" of
the Chinese Communist Party, as the army and the police.

By late last year there were an estimated 4 million Chinese online, a
tiny percentage of the population, but enough to have attracted
considerable attention from the security apparatus.

Many Chinese, for example, knew about the $US10 billion ($16.8 billion)
smuggling scandal that was unfolding in Xiamen because they read about
on the Web, while local newspapers were banned from reporting on it. As
such, even rumour becomes a potential "accountability" tool for a regime

which cannot be challenged at the polls.

>From Beijing have come all kinds of bellicose statements such as claims

that the Net is being used to leak "state secrets" and spread "harmful
information", thus justifying the establishment of a committee which is
supposed to have the ability to identify any individual Net user.

Just how that can be done, technically, is a bigger question.

Monitoring equipment has been installed on all of China's main Web
all Chinese portals employ staff to weed out politically critical
statements from chat rooms, Shanghai's authorities recently shut down
unregistered Internet cafes and individuals have been jailed for crimes
such as passing on email addresses.

But, while China has blocked sites put up by the US Government - Radio
Free Asia and the Voice of America, for example - it has failed to shut
off the thousands of sites set up by Chinese dissidents in the US and
other parts of the world.

Consider the artful dodging of the US-based VIP Reference, a
Internet magazine regularly sent to at least 300,000 addresses in China,

including the state security units. It includes political news censored
by the mainland Government, information about dissidents and exposes of
factional struggles within the party leadership. To escape detection the

New York- and Washington-based organisers switch providers every 24
and recipients are asked not to forward the files inside China where
can be monitored.

"We want to destroy the system of censorship over the Internet," VIP
editor Li Hongkuan was quoted as saying by the Kyodo news service last

"The Internet will affect China more deeply than other societies because

China is a closed society and the Internet is an open technology," said
Guo Liang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and
of China's most prominent writers on the Net, in a recent interview.

"In 1989, I was in Tiananmen Square. We failed then. The Internet won't

According to Willy Wo-Lap Lam: "It seems fortress CCP [Chinese Communist

Party] cannot withstand the winds of change for long. Government
propaganda has increasingly lost credibility ... as more urban
intellectuals have access to satellite television and, in particular,
dissident Web sites.

"The growing diversity and irreverence of the alternative media is
the way for the end of one-party dictatorship."

"The face of Asia has been changed, even scarred, considerably by
technology. Why then, the euphoria over the power of the Internet?"
Phar Kim Beng, who teaches conflicts in modern history at Harvard
University, in a recent essay.

"Can the Internet upstage the cumulative impacts of steam, electricity
and nuclear power combined? More pointedly, can the Net change Asian
politics and society?

"This appears to be a tall order. The Internet, after all, lacks the
defining dimension of power called coercion. More precisely, the
does not possess what states otherwise have in abundance: the monopoly
of violence.

"Be that as it may, it would be myopic for anyone to deny the
revolutionary power of the Net."

Phar argued that the Net has both undermined the restrictions of
geography by making physical travel unnecessary and enlarged the scope
political participation by offering cheap, fast communication to all
sorts of disparate groups.

The Net is only a tool. But, said Rodan, it now lies at the nexus of the

desire of nations to achieve economic growth in a globalised economy and

at the same time maintain political control.

Rodan believes that technical controls and the use of fear of arrest or
surveillance can only be partly successful unless governments can offer
their citizens improving living conditions or other incentives not to
rock the boat. As such, the impact of the Net will be uneven and the
success of governments to control the information coming across it will
be just as varied.

"Regimes that don't have coherent and efficient bureaucracies and don't
have effective means of co-opting the population are at greatest risk
from the Internet," he said.

"On its own, the Net is of no strategic use. Its power only comes alive
when there is a band of active citizen groups to promote it. The power
the Net to change Asia - where three quarters of the population still
survives on $US1 [$1.68] a day - should be tempered with realistic
expectations," said Phar.

The power of the Net, he argues, is "corrosive" and cannot be expected
undermine authoritarian regimes instantly.

"That said, the Net is here to stay. It has already transformed the
economies of the US and Europe. Given time, Asia will have to live with
the power of the Internet."

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