In Southeast Asia, the Web Gets Tangled amid Dissent

Article excerpt

Southeast Asian governments are reaching for new legal tools and raw state powers as the Internet increasingly enables younger citizens to criticize their long-serving political leaders.

Not all these countries are as effective as China and its famed "Great Firewall," which filters everything from microblog posts to ordinary Internet searches. But the speed with which countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam are moving to impose Web controls is worrying human-rights advocates, who fear further curbs on Internet freedoms could suppress free speech and strip these economies of their vitality.

Singapore this month imposed targeted controls on Internet news media, while Malaysia says it could introduce additional Internet regulations in the name of protecting minors. Cambodia is considering anticybercrime legislation that activists say could be used against government critics, just as the Philippines battles legal challenges against its own such law passed last year. Vietnam, meanwhile, has jailed more dissident bloggers so far this year than in the whole of 2012.

Such efforts come amid a rapid expansion of broadband and mobile Web access in Southeast Asia, home to some of the world's fastest-growing developing economies. The upshot, analysts say, is that the region's emerging middle classes are better educated and less deferential toward political incumbents.

"Many governments are starting to regulate the Internet out of fear of how social media can support unfettered debate or social movements," particularly in countries that already exert heavy influence or control over traditional media, said Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at Washington-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

But "many governments are still struggling to understand how the Internet works. As a result, they are extending traditional media laws to the Internet that don't really make sense, given how different the technology is," Ms. Wong said.

In Singapore's case, analysts say the new measures mark a departure from a so-called "light touch" regulatory approach, under which the ruling People's Action Party has largely spared online media from the heavy state influence applied to mainstream newspapers and broadcasters. …