As the Internet sweeps across Asia, it is bringing with it a
strong challenge to the region's authoritarian governments: a freer
exchange of information and ideas.
Nowhere more so than in China, where the government has mounted a
huge effort to filter Internet content. The "Great Firewall of
China" is manned by at least 30,000 censors who blocked as many as
50,000 websites in the first half of 2002, according to a US State
Department report on China's human rights.
Just this week, Beijing introduced stringent penalties against
purveyors of Internet pornography, including life imprisonment for
those behind major sites that receive more than 250,000 hits.
"Pornographic" is left undefined.
Those who study the Internet and its impact on Asia say that
although the region is rife with censorship efforts like those in
China, freedom is relative and increasing by degrees. The free-
wheeling and expansive nature of the online world has proved
difficult to control, pushing Beijing and similar governments in the
region to make concessions, much as they had to do in entering
Western-style economics and trade, say analysts.
"The Internet will make any country freer," says Ang Peng Hwa, a
professor at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. "If you
have the Internet, you're connected to the world. If you want to be
a part of the world, you have to play by the norms of the world. The
world norms lean toward a freer Internet."
China's massive firewall is already showing cracks under the
weight of the Internet's expansion. The pressure has come from
innumerable sources, including an onslaught of weblogs, open-source
directories, and projects like Wikipedia, an "open-content"
Censorship has narrowed
Five years ago in China, most Western newspaper websites were
blocked from viewing. Today, the Chinese censors who watch the
Internet target more specific sites - chat forums on ultrasensitive
topics like Tibetan liberation and the Falun Gong religious
(Beijing does not actually label sites as "blocked." Instead,
when a user clicks on a blocked site, the page will begin to load,
slowly, and then the user is redirected either to an error message
or back to a Chinese search engine.)
So while the average Chinese still can't walk into an Internet
cafe in Ningbo and pull up the homepage of the Taiwan government, he
can read The New York Times.
Even some sensitive topics, surprisingly, are readily available
in China. A quick browse through Wikipedia's Chinese-language
version for the "June 4, Tiananmen" entry offers a broad look at the
Democracy movement of 1989 and its violent end. Without using any
special software or proxy servers, a Chinese web user can view the
famed photo of a lone man facing down tanks outside the square 15
years ago in Beijing.
As countries like China become more open to international
business and globalization, gradually, "the Internet will become
more open and the restrictions will become less onerous," says David
Goldstein, an Internet policy consultant based in Sydney, Australia.
Residents of Asian countries are projected in the next few years
to make up more than half of the world's online population.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, Internet freedom conditions vary
and tend to mirror how individual governments have attempted
censorship of other media - films, television, books, and radio
programming - in years past. So far, the Internet is pushing
boundaries in a positive manner, observers say.
"For countries which previously managed gatekeeping regimes, the
Internet has been a constructive test of governments' assumptions"
about controlling information, says Chin Saik Yoon, the Malaysia-
based chief editor of the Digital Review of Asia Pacific. "Most have
responded well, and information flows in these countries have been