Singapore: Leads The Way In The Business of Stifling the Internet
- "Singapore acted as an adviser to several of the communist states when
they were setting up their Internet filters in the late 1990s."
The business of stifling the Internet
by Alan Boyd for the Asia Times, 31 Jan 2004
SYDNEY - Internet users are losing ground in the censorship war being
fought in Asia's cyberwaves, partly because Western corporations are
helping to undermine the spirit of enterprise that made the medium
such a potent weapon for free speech.
While smarter and more discreet communication technologies offer a
way around creeping state controls, advocates of reduced government
intervention fear that multinationals may present a far greater long-
Media watchdog Privacy International warned in a year-long study
released in September that corporations with a vastly different
agendas were quietly hijacking the 'Net for their own commercial
ends. At the same time, almost all governments worldwide - including
many supposed flagbearers of democracy - were exploiting terrorism
fears to enact laws that would impede the flow of information.
"Governments and their agencies have traditionally viewed new
technologies with suspicion, arguing that their presence can disturb
the hard-won 'balance' of rights and responsibilities, in the same
way that large companies have traditionally viewed any new media as a
threat to the balance of their markets," co-authors Simon Davies and
Karen Banks wrote in a foreword.
"Technological developments are being implemented to protect a free
Internet, but the knowledge gap between radical innovators and
restrictive institutions appears to be closing," they said.
The study, and a flurry of other recent reports by media watchdogs
and human-rights organizations, confirm what many frustrated Asian
consumers had suspected: meddling in the 'Net has intensified during
the past two or three years.
Websites and their harassed subscribers have fought back with a game
of subterfuge that many had expected would eventually exhaust
surveillance resources by stretching their ability to monitor
constantly changing techniques. Online addresses have been rerouted
through a maze of cyber corridors to fool proxy government servers
that attempt to block content by filtering all data before it
actually reaches the public domain. Crossover technologies between
the Internet and mobile phones are opening up other possibilities, as
websites use messaging services to keep regular users informed of
suppressed content or shifting site locations.
Amnesty International (AI) noted this week that even in China, widely
regarded as having the most repressive Internet climate worldwide,
online activism has become more evident as controls have been
"Over the last year, there have been signs of Internet users acting
increasingly in solidarity with one another, in particular by
expressing support for each other online," the human-rights group
stated, adding: "Such expressions of solidarity have proved
dangerous, as a growing number of people have been detained on the
basis of such postings."
Amnesty International listed the names of 54 Chinese nationals who
had been detained or sentenced for expressing their opinions online,
or for downloading information from the Internet, since November
2002 - a 60 percent increase in that period. This was in addition to
an unknown number of people who were still in detention for
disseminating information about the spread of severe acute
respiratory syndrome (SARS) over the Internet last year.
Most Internet criminals in China have been charged under 1995 decrees
that make all users register with their local police stations and
sign an agreement with the Ministry of Public Security that they will
not engage in "subversion" or "endanger state security". The edicts
carry prison sentences of two to 12 years. A separate proclamation
issued by then-premier Li Peng in 1996 required that all
international computer networking traffic, both incoming and
outgoing, be routed through state channels.
China, as well as autocratic neighbors Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, got
its censorship cue from Singapore, whose filtering system is arguably
the most effective in Asia. Because it controls the three Internet
service providers, Singapore was able to set up a computerized proxy
server in the 1990s that screens all websites for content viewed
as "objectionable" or a potential threat to national security.
Although political leaders in the republic acknowledge that some
loosening of media controls is inevitable as education and income
levels grow, they are not in any hurry to oblige.
"I have no doubt that our society must open up further. The
government has no monopoly of knowledge and ideas. To understand and
tackle our challenges fully and vigorously, we need to draw on the
expertise and resources of all our people," Deputy Prime Minister Lee
Hsien Loong said in an address to the Harvard Club this month. "But
we will not ape others blindly and do something simply because it
appears fashionable. Coffee-shop talk is helpful for sensing the
popular mood, but it cannot be the basis for deciding on national
policies," Lee said.
Singapore acted as an adviser to several of the communist states when
they were setting up their Internet filters in the late 1990s. Most
initially had little success because of Cold War limits on technology
However, this has all changed in the past decade, as Western
companies have targeted emerging investment opportunities for
telecommunication systems, especially in China.
China, with a reputed 30,000 full-time Internet surveillance
operatives for the country's 45 million web surfers, now has access
to the same cutting-edge technology that content providers were using
to skirt its censorship regime.
The Amnesty International report named Cisco Systems, Microsoft,
Nortel Networks, Websense and Sun Microsystems as multinationals that
had supplied Beijing with Internet equipment without imposing any
conditions on its use.
Privacy International, which has also campaigned against unrestricted
sales, noted: "Without the aid of this technology transfer, it is
unlikely that non-democratic regimes could impose the current levels
of control over Internet activity."
An equally worrying trend is that Western corporations, including
many in the mass media, are manipulating the Internet to pursue their
own business objectives without considering the adverse effects
elsewhere. According to the Privacy International
study, "multinational corporate censors" with different agendas from
their governments' have represented one of the most important growth
trends in recent years.
"Some American cable companies seek to turn the Internet into a
controlled distribution medium like TV and radio, and are putting in
place the necessary technological changes to the Internet's
infrastructure to do so," warned Simon Davies and Karen Banks. "It is
arguable that in the first decade of the 21st century, corporations
will rival governments in threatening Internet freedoms."
Some Western governments indirectly add to this process by using
commercial pressures to impose misguided censorship standards on
software manufacturers, even with products that were designed to
blunt the technological edge of repressive regimes. Last year the
makers of Safeweb, a US software package that was developed in
partnership with the Central Intelligence Agency to help Chinese
users avoid censorship, were forced to install a filter on some
content so it would qualify for US public funding.
Asian governments have taken note of the financial and political
benefits of letting the commercial world assume the censorship
burden, which takes some of the human-rights heat off security
For the past 12 months, China has been delegating responsibility for
surveillance and monitoring to private companies, including Internet
cafes and information service providers. Davies and Banks argued that
Western governments were neglecting their leadership responsibilities
to ensure that the Internet is allowed to evolve without political or
In many cases this has occurred, they said, because political leaders
have overreacted to perceived security threats posed by the free flow
of information since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.
"While paying lip service to personal freedoms, the leaders of the
democratic world have affirmed with uncharacteristic harmony that the
pursuit of a safer society must prompt a reassessment of individual
liberties and privacy," they said.
"In its most blatant manifestation, this will result in a substantial
increase in the right of the state to place controls on all citizens,
shifting the default in favor of comprehensive surveillance over the
"Technology is at the same time the culprit and the savior."
(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd)