Asia's digital dilemma

For decades, authoritarian governments seeking to control the flow of news and information have only needed to suspend or withdraw the licenses of media organizations.

Now, these governments are discovering they must contend with a vastly more elusive technology: the Internet.

This raises a fundamental dilemma for more repressive-regimes - particularly in Asia - where economic development will be increasingly dependent on technological advances in coming years.

Asians and their governments have responded differently to the Web:

*In September, China tried to prohibit foreign investment in online businesses. Then, the November World Trade Organization agreement between the United States and China reversed this policy.

But last month's decision by China to force domestic Web sites to publish only state-approved material goes against the spirit of the WTO agreement. This comes at a time when the number of Internet users in China is doubling every six months.

*Vietnam has adopted a measure allowing the government to control and censor all Internet communications in the country. The government prevents entry to about 300 Web sites it deems either "subversive" or "culturally sensitive."

*In Burma, found using a computer without a license can be imprisoned from seven to 15 years. And a recent decree declares it illegal to write or receive anything online about "politics" or anything perceived as "detrimental to the state."

*Former Indonesian President Suharto's downfall was due, in part, to dissenting views that circulated widely, unimpeded online.

*Malaysia is discovering that curbing dissent is especially hard once a nation's middle class embraces computers. After Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad fired his reformist deputy and Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim, and jailed him on corruption and sodomy charges, some 80 pro-Anwar Web sites were created in England and the US.

The 1.2 million Malaysians who have access to the Internet can log on to these sites to hear more about the trial, which has received limited coverage in the Malaysian media. Malaysia's government will find it particularly hard to crack down on these Internet users, however, because it has made information technology the stated cornerstone of its industrial policy.

All of these governments are concerned about the Web's political potency and its ability to undermine their long-held power.

But the real dilemma rises from the imperatives of economic growth.

Technological advancement, including the evolution of the Web, will be a necessary foundation of future growth in most Asian countries.

Such advancement, however, will be predicated to a certain extent on the willingness of Asian governments to embrace the information revolution, which means permitting a relatively free flow of information online.

It is projected that by 2003, Asia will account for 30 percent of the world's e-business-related information-technology spending.

By then, 250 million people in Asia are expected to have access to the Internet; at least a five-fold increase. But despite this significant growth, more than 90 percent of Asians will still not have access to the Internet. That will limit the ability of Asian countries to fully exploit the economic potential of the online era. To do so, Asian countries will have to substantially expand the reach of the Web and other technologies throughout their populations.

Yet such an approach is undoubtedly viewed by officials in countries like China, Vietnam, and Burma as filled with political and social peril.

All countries, the US included, are grappling with new questions posed by online technologies. Among these are the degree to which, in certain cases - from pornography to bomb designs - the state has compelling interests in placing some restrictions on the Internet.

In a variety of Asian countries, however, the choices are far more stark and fundamental.

For some of Asia's more-restrictive regimes, the openness wrought by new technologies represents a serious threat to order.

However, if that fear leads them to stifle information technology, it will only serve to widen the "digital divide," adversely affect- ing their national development and perhaps damaging the image and integrity of their nations.

Not even the most authoritarian of Asian governments can afford to take such a risk if they want to see their citizens prosper in a highly competitive world.

*John J. Brandon, a Southeast Asia specialist, is assistant director of The Asia Foundation in Washington. The views expressed here are his own.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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