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Singapore: Leads The Way In The Business of Stifling the Internet

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  • sg_review@yahoogroups.com
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 17, 2004
      "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-
      term threat.

      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
      commercial constraints.

      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)
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