The explosion of Internet users worldwide brought with it high hopes for a true information age: a world without borders, where the unfettered and instant exchange of news and views would link all in a common bond, an electronic global village. While interest in the Internet's communicative powers reached fever pitch in this already media-saturated country, expectations elsewhere ran even higher. Many felt that in nations with tight press controls and repressive political systems the Internet would bring about an opening of society, whether the ruling regime wanted it or not.
For a while, the Internet lived up to these high expectations. Especially in technologically advanced yet politically repressive societies, such as many East Asian nations, Internet discussion groups and World Wide Web sites provided an excellent forum for the kind of free exchange of political views banned elsewhere in those countries. Citizens of Singapore, Indonesia, and China, to name a few, were able for the first time to access news and political information untouched by government censors. Buoyed by their success, proponents of the Net claimed that here, at last, was an unstoppable medium capable of promoting freedom of speech on a global scale, a tool that could provide an end-run around censors of every authoritarian stripe.
This may yet be the case. However, recent setbacks in East Asia - one of the most "wired" regions on the planet - indicate that it may be time for a reappraisal of these initial, optimistic estimates. For while debate continues to rage in the Western world over attempts to regulate so-called indecent material on-line, even more far-reaching efforts to censor opposing political views have begun in East Asia.
Early last month, China implemented technology that blocks access to scores of Internet sites in a campaign against what the Chinese government calls "spiritual pollution." Sites no longer available in China include those of the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch/Asia.
Singapore's population has one of the fastest-growing percentages of Internet users in the world. In the middle of September, however, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority ordered access providers in the island-state to ban all Internet content that might "excite disaffection against the government." Also banned were sites dealing with what the government called sexual "perversions," such as homosexuality.
In an example of political censorship reminiscent of the most draconian measures imposed by Communist dictators, the military regime in Burma (Myanmar) announced early this month that prison terms of 7 to 15 years would be meted out to individuals caught in the unauthorized possession of a computer with networking capability. Similar punishments now face any Burmese found guilty of using a computer to send or receive information on such broad topics as state security, the economy, or national culture.
Last month's meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on how to best police the Internet region-wide sounds yet another ominous signal. Speaking fearfully of the "perils" posed by "this dynamic and boundless medium," all ASEAN nations - with the exception of the Philippines - agreed that ways must be found, and soon, to combat the Internet's ability to undermine those nations' tight press controls.
On the bright side, experts claim that for those willing to work hard enough to get it, there is still little any government can do to totally deny access to information on the Internet. Encrypted e-mail and subscribing to out-of-country service providers are two options available to net-savvy individuals for circumventing current Internet controls.
But that is not the point. Restrictions in China and in Singapore now put the last source of uncensored news firmly out of reach for all but the wealthiest and most dedicated Internet hackers in those countries. Recently in Singapore, authorities for the first time tracked a man downloading information to his home computer, raided his apartment, and fined him the equivalent of about $15,000. In this case, the Singaporean was viewing pornography. Yet in a country that regularly jails and harasses political dissenters and that has even threatened journalists such as William Safire with arrest if they so much as enter the country, the very real possibility of state monitoring and active prosecution for political offenses committed in cyberspace will certainly cast a pall on Singaporeans' free exchange of political views on the Internet.
In East Asia, at least, the mass effect the Internet was to have had in undermining political censorship has been sharply curtailed. Even in Indonesia and Malaysia, two countries where political use of the Internet continues to thrive, the threat of Internet restrictions looms large.
Interestingly, the best remaining hope for free political expression on the Internet may lie in simple economics. For if there is one thing repressive East Asian governments fear more than unrestricted access to outside media sources, it is that their nations' competitiveness in the rapidly growing information industry may be compromised. Already, protests have been voiced in the business communities of Singapore, Malaysia, and China that censoring the Internet may, in the end, hamper those nations' aspirations to be the most technologically advanced on the block.
For the leaders of the "soft authoritarian" nations of East Asia, who have often favored economic gain over political repression when the two have been directly at odds, the issue of Internet censorship may yet prove a decisive turning point. If governments in the region continue to favor repression, their peoples' last source of uncensored news and information may be cut off for good. Yet, if the Internet forces those same governments to finally come to realize the very real ties between political freedom and economic prosperity, the Internet, that "dynamic and boundless medium," may prove revolutionary after all.
*Joshua Gordon works for Freedom House in New York, a nonpartisan organization devoted to monitoring human rights and democracy worldwide.