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.

Public Image Limited

The capital has a woeful amount of public space to offer its citizens, who are instead usually to be found taking sanctuary down in its shopping

Let's not mince words here, Jakarta is in dire need of public space and parks for its citizens to unwind in. Now admittedly a certain amount of progress on this issue has been made over the last few years and parks such as Taman Tebet, Taman Menteng and Taman Aydoya, for example, have been spruced up in an attempt to offer the city's residents some non-retail-based respite. However these parks are but a drop in the ocean given the city's eight-digit population and given a 2007 spatial-planning law which states that Jakarta should dedicate at least 30 per cent of its total area to green space.

 This ambitious target is seemingly impossible to achieve without the demolition of a huge number of the shops, plazas, offices and private residences that cram this densely packed rabbit warren of a city, and so increasingly, the only option available is for people to traipse around privately owned shopping plazas and gawp at the goods on offer, while developing their own pathological addictions to conspicuous consumption.

A prime example of this phenomenon came last month when an enormous crush of people pushed, jostled, gnashed teeth, wailed and fainted outside the Pacific Place shopping mall in a bid to get their hands on the latest model of BlackBerry smartphone, which was being offered at half price. The expressions on these people’s faces as they shoved and shouted were no different from those worn by emaciated refugees as they fight over food aid. There are always new needs that need to be sated, and identity is now more defined by what you own than it is by what you are, think or do.

A moratorium on the issuing of permits for the construction of shopping plazas is now in effect. The city is already hyper-saturated with retail palaces though, many of which have been constructed to the detriment of public parks and spaces. As well as offering fresh air to the lungs, parks also have an important cultural role to play in offering a public sphere in which people can mingle and socialize, external to the hyperactive demands of consumer commerce.

It's a tough ask though. If 30 per cent of the city's total area was turned into parks and public spaces, the results would clock in at around 650 square kilometres. Compare that with the park that surrounds Jakarta's National Monument (Monas), which covers a mere 0.8 square kilometres. Hmmm.

As well as parks, pedestrian space is also an important element of any modern metropolis’s public sphere. Alas however, most of the city's pavements are filled with parked cars and food stalls, and pedestrians and their green use of bioorganic leg power are all too sadly stacked at the bottom of the pile in this heaving city.

Citizens of other cities around the world though think nothing of a 20-minute stroll down to the shops or to their local subway station. This is largely due to the fact that it's possible to complete such journeys without tripping over, falling down a manhole, being forced into the road to play chicken with endless motorcycles or otherwise being asphyxiated, shouted at, tapped up by primary-school beggars or scalded by flying fried rice. Recent attempts to clear the sidewalks of such obstructions have been, to say the least, rather halfhearted, and so the inveterate walker faces an uncertain future.

One doesn't have to leave the country to find more positive pedestrian scenes however. In Java's lush countryside, school kids think nothing of cycling or walking for kilometres through verdant palm trees and paddy fields to get to their schools. In Jakarta's urban jungle however, trying to negotiate oneself through the city's chaotic Brownian motion on foot is perhaps not unlike walking along the pavements of a more-organised metropolitan environment having drunk five bottles of Bintang.

All of these problems, the commercialisation of public space, the difficulty of pedestrian travel and the lack of green areas, all serve to alienate and isolate the city’s comparatively well off, with their cars and credit cards, from the city's bustling but impoverished street life and thus the deep wound of Jakarta’s yawning income chasm is never challenged by the soothing balm of trans-class interaction and pollination.

Yes, Jakartans love their shopping malls but they represent something of a consumerist, self-fulfilling prophecy. If people have nowhere else to go in their leisure time other than such places, then where are they going to end up? If someone had the vision and bravery to build a sports centre, a theatre, an art-house cinema, or even a park, basically anything one step removed from the need to turn an instant return on one's investment, are we to believe that no one would go to them? Perhaps, a thousand years hence, cyborg archaeologists and anthropologists will unearth the remains of Jakarta's great plazas, along with petrified Starbucks beakers and fossilised mobile phone casings and pontificate on what strange religion their ancestors practised in these places. I have seen the future, and it is latte coloured. January sales anyone?