It is not for no reason that Indonesia has the highest proportion of VPN users in the world.
This huge Islamic nation with a population of 264 million people has a long track record of internet censorship, either due to their conservative religious views or to prop up the current government.
Their latest internet control venture appears to be prompted by the latter. In Papua, the most easterly territory of Indonesia, which shares a border with Papua New Guinea, there has long been resentment that this resource-rich region has remained largely impoverished.
The situation in Papua
There has been a simmering political rebellion against Indonesian rule from Jakarta for years. This week, matters rose to the boil with streets protests descending into violent confrontations between protestors and police.
Over the weekend, dozens of Papuan students were arrested on the island of Java. Reports suggest they were tear-gassed and then arrested in the city of Surabaya on Indonesia’s independence day. Many reportedly faced a barrage of racist abuse as they were detained.
The reaction in Papua was understandably furious. Full-scale riots broke out across the region with buildings being set on fire and pitched battles between police and locals on the streets.
Indonesia’s response has been typical of their government in recent times. The internet has been slowed in Papua for a while as the government tried to prevent protestors sharing information and communicating.
But towards the end of last week, internet access was shut down altogether.
In an attempt to justify the shutdown, which was still in place at the time of writing, Ferdinandus Setu, a spokesperson for the Indonesian communication ministry told AFP, “The amount of racist and provocative content was very high… and it went viral.”
Most observers believe this is no reason for a total internet shutdown, however. As Usman Hamid, the executive director of Amnesty International in Jakarta said, “this blanket internet blackout is an appalling attack on people’s right to freedom of expression.
“This is not a time for censorship,” he added. These tensions are not an excuse to prevent people from sharing information and peacefully speaking their mind.”
While the protests in Papua have now calmed down, due in no small part to the arrival of 1,200 Indonesian police and military in the region, the underlying issues remain. But the Indonesian government appears committed to stifling popular opinion rather than engaging with local communities and addressing their concerns head-on.
VPN use in Indonesia
It is notable that reports state that many Papuans were able to get around the internet shutdown with some ease.
It is no surprise that many Papuans will have turned to a VPN to enable continued internet access. VPNs such as ExpressVPN has found Indonesia a highly successful market and all major VPNs have large user-bases across the country.
In more impoverished regions, free VPN use tends to be higher and while these can help get around censorship, their use comes with many other risks. We would advise people in these regions to club together and choose a VPN which allows a large number of simultaneous connections with each subscription such as IPVanish.
VPN use in Indonesia has continued to grow steadily over the past few years thanks in no small part to the government’s tendency to interfere in the online access of their citizens.
Online censorship in Indonesia
We reported earlier this year on how protests in the wake of the country’s recent and controversial Presidential elections were shut down in no small part due to the throttling of all popular social media sites.
We have also reported in the past on the blocking of dozens of gay apps and websites, while efforts have also been made to block the encrypted messaging service Telegram amid claims that it was “full of radical and terrorist propaganda”. WhatsApp is another encrypted communication app which has found itself in the firing line,
Back in 2017, there were reports of a new automated censorship system being introduced which could block as many as 30 million websites.
These cases are really just the tip of the iceberg. But they illustrate all too clearly why so many Indonesians feel the need to use a VPN. Even those with little money to spare will still consider investing in a VPN to secure the free and open internet access to which they are entitled.
The shutdown in Papua shows that the Indonesian government remains willing to use the internet as a tool to control its citizens. And as long as that remains the case, VPN use will continue to be essential for many Indonesian internet users.