Internet Prods Asia to Open Up ; China This Week Unveiled Strict Penalties for Online Porn Distributors, but Analysts See Online Freedom on the Rise
Kathleen McLaughlin Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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" encyclopedia.
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 movement.
(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 re-energized. …