The state of online censorship around the world has shown little sign of improvement in recent times. Indeed, in several places, things have been getting a lot worse. The ASEAN nations of Vietnam and Indonesia provide just a few examples of this.
Vietnam to roll out new censorship system
Like China, Vietnam is a one-party Communist state and it is therefore little surprise that online censorship plays a huge role in the Communist Party retaining power in the country.
Earlier this month, it was announced that the Vietnamese regime was about to roll out a new censorship system which would “block and prevent personal computers from receiving misleading information.”
The project has recently been announced by the country’s Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC). Claiming that it is part of a nationwide cyber crime initiative, the Government department went on to explain that the programme would include new software, legal measures, and teaching.
“Software that identifies, blocks, collects and processes misleading information on the internet will soon be launched in the country,” they announced. It is assumed that this software will be compulsory on all computers and internet-enabled devices, although the details of exactly how it will operate remain unclear.
In addition, the Vietnamese regime will develop media and communications materials to support their policy and begin to teach young people how they can “filter out inappropriate information online.”
It is a pretty chilling announcement for anyone that values online freedom. But it should not come as a surprise. China has been fairly proactive in exporting its own brand of online censorship to similar regimes, so it is no surprise that their Communist neighbours should be following their lead.
The saga of Indonesia and Telegram
In Indonesia, the government has taken steps to block access to the encrypted message service Telegram. The site became unavailable a couple of weeks ago, with the Indonesian authorities releasing a statement which claimed that certain channels on Telegram were “full of radical and terrorist propaganda”.
Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and has been faced with a growth of local extremism. The Government claims to be working to tackle this and there is some evidence of cooperation between Indonesia and neighbouring countries to prevent ISIS gaining a foothold in the region.
Indonesia’s Minister of Communications, Rudiantara, claimed that Telegram had failed to take this content down quickly enough, but sought to reassure users in Indonesia that no further social media services would be affected.
It seems that, on this occasion, the reassurances might be legitimate. Pavel Durov, who is one of the founders of Telegram, told Reuters that the situation was down to a “miscommunication”. He went on to say, “Telegram is heavily encrypted and privacy-oriented, but we’re no friends of terrorists.” He said that Telegram would be taking steps to ensure that any terrorist-related channels were taken down.
Durov subsequently travelled to Indonesia to meet with the Minister and reached an agreement to keep to get Telegram back online. However, speaking together with the Minister, he was keen to stress that if there had been any request to compromise Telegram’s encryption, he would have ended the meeting.
So, for now, Indonesian people can still access one of the world’s most secure and popular encrypted messenger services. But the saga shows how trigger-happy the government in Indonesia can be over censoring online content and perhaps gives an indication as to why more Indonesian people use a VPN more than any other country in the world.
Google to vet content in Indonesia
There was a similar theme to be found in recent discussions between Google officials and Minister Rudiantara. The Indonesian Government had raised concerns with Google over content that could be accessed via their platform which might incite violence or hate speech.
Ann Lavin, Google’s Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs in Southeast Asia and Greater China met with the Minister and subsequently announced that Google would be making their ‘Trusted Flag’ programme available in Indonesia.
The ‘Trusted Flag’ programme allows users to notice Google in bulk about any content which can be found on Google or YouTube which they find offensive or think might be illegal. Google will then review this content and then remove it if they deem it necessary.
Whilst there is of course still the potential for the system to be abused, the move has been broadly welcomed, although some concerns over government transparency have been raised, especially after the Minister claimed at a press conference that he was pushing this agenda to “protect” the people of Indonesia from such content.
As Nawawi Bahrudin, executive director of the Legal Aid Center for the Press, told Reuters “They should not just use their own yardsticks [to determine whether this content is dangerous]… They have to be transparent and not just keep it among themselves.”