Monday, March 10, 2014

What a Tangled Web We Weave

Indonesia's Internet is increasingly becoming a free-speech battleground 

Issues surrounding that old chestnut, freedom of speech, have started to make waves across the globe over the last few years. The reason that this time-honoured benchmark of democratic freedom is once again becoming a front-line political battleground is the all-conquering reach of the Internet and our new social media.

In recent years, autocratic Arab governments have been toppled and rioters have taken to the streets to terrorise England and in both cases, Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry Messenger had major roles to play. So when exactly does Internet use become a public menace? What can be considered defamatory and libellous in our wired world? Is it government's role to be putting checks and balances on the new connectivity? Are politicians simply superannuated, nation-state dinosaurs running scared of the new light-speed social currents that zap like digital pinballs around nodes of common interest? Are we headed for Julian Assange's nightmarish vision of an Orwellian future?

Indonesia has had its own dilemmas to grapple with vis-à-vis the new social media paradigm of course. On the one hand, Indonesians are possessed of a natural sociability that has seen them take to these technologies like ducks to water. Indonesia has 43.1 million Facebook users (making it the world's third-largest population of Mark Zuckerberg disciples) and BlackBerry Messenger reigns supreme here, despite these devices currently facing collapsing sales around the rest of the world.

On the other hand though, Indonesia’s still relatively autocratic, paternalistic and, above all, corrupt political and judicial systems have been left floundering by the new so-called "hacktivism" and there have been plenty of techno flashpoints of late that have made those in power seem rather lugubrious and heavy-handed.

Virtual alarm bells first started ringing a few years back when Indonesian mother-of-three, Prita Mulyasari, was handed down a suspended jail sentence for libelling Tangerang's Omni Hospital in an e-mail that she sent to a group of her friends expressing her dissatisfaction with the hospital's service. Everyone from freedom-loving Facebook fans to highflying lawyers sprang to Prita's defence, arguing that criticism of public or private services most certainly doesn’t constitute liable.

The country's draconian ITE (Electronic Transactions Law) would suggest otherwise however. Controversial Communication and Information Technology Minister, Tifatul Sembiring, has stated that there are five boundaries in the cyber world that the ITE outlines should not be crossed, and these pertain to issues of pornography, gambling, threats, fraud and blasphemy. However these five deadly virtual sins also include information and posts that may, "disturb the public," or which, "attack or offend public figures."

Mr. Sembiring, a member of the Islamic-leaning Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) has proved a polarising figure during his time looking after the country's information superhighway and has often been ridiculed for his censorious approach to the newly connected Archipelago. After a failed and ultimately rather futile attempt to keep Internet pornography from polluting Indonesian waters, Mr. Sembiring has more recently, and rather ominously, turned his attention to the country's avid Tweeters.

After learning that Twitter is filled with anonymous accounts that are often used to insult and attack other users, Sembiring stated that such rogue Tweeters could find their accounts being shut down and has even threatened that they could also have their devices and positions traced with a view to prosecuting them. Mr. Sembiring has also been pressuring RIM, makers of the ubiquitous BlackBerry, to set up servers in Indonesia, as those millions and millions of BlackBerry messages currently travel to their recipients via RIM's Canadian servers, well beyond the grasp of elite Indonesian political control, scrutiny and censorship.

This latter initiative is perhaps revealing of the fear that really underlies Indonesia's still pretty autocratic political elite’s stated concerns about libellous posts that, "disturb the public." The Arab Spring has seen the rise of so-called "citizen journalism" and mobile-phone cameras are now regularly used to document abuses of power. The use of social media to organise popular dissent through channels that completely circumvent traditional government information filters and controls has also proved crucial.

The Arab Spring has undoubtedly been spectacular, however there are also dangers involved in the greater free speech and popular organisation that the web promises. Alas, our new networked, free-thinking paradigm has the potential to crash into the immovable object of Indonesia’s traditional, long-held beliefs with a loud clatter. The recent case of Alexander Aan is a case in point. Mr. Aan posted the phrase, "God does not exist" up on his Facebook wall and subsequently survived a mob attack before being taken into custody by the West Sumatra police and charged with blasphemy.

The still-pretty-inchoate Internet so often acts as a mass vanity-induction device, a huge ego-feeding mechanism that encourages self-congratulatory, mutual backslapping between those who share opinions and tastes. The inverse is also true, and the net is also filled with abrasive but equally self-congratulatory broadsides and abuse that are directed against those that would dissent from one's cherished pearls of wisdom. This is the downside of the Internet. However it is becoming increasingly clear that the web can also be a space for public exchange, free debate, expression, organisation, enquiry and activism, a space that still evades society’s normal systems of information control.

All opinions find a voice on the Internet, which perhaps ill suits traditional notions of Indonesian hegemony, harmony and consensual decision-making. As the web continues to spread its tentacles throughout the country though, Indonesians are getting to hear voices and opinions that they've never previously been exposed to before. Give a man a mask and he'll tell you what he really thinks, or so the old saying goes. Give him an anonymous and untraceable computer terminal though and you won't be able to shut the fellow up.

The new digital debating club challenges imposed wisdom and the specious harmony that masks a sea of social ills, and the Indonesian boat is currently being rocked by these new technological currents. It could get rough out there but nothing less than a transformation of Indonesia's collective consciousness is up for grabs as we steer towards oceans new.