Online Censorship Rears Its Ugly Head In Southeast Asia

With a growing middle class rising up across its population of more than 600 million people, Southeast Asia is truly a growth market. Added to that, the influx of mobile devices bringing Internet to hundreds of millions of people for the first — and putting it right in their pocket, no less — makes it a particularly exciting place for technology, which has the potential to be hugely transformative.

Unfortunately, while tech may be blazing a trail that includes improving communications, increasing access to resources, making payment methods more robust and more, attitudes across the region can be major hurdles that hinder development. Particularly from governments and other authorities.

To make that point clear, three prominent and very different examples of censorship from countries across the region made headlines last week.

Content Deemed Unsuitable

Indonesia grabbed the somewhat unwanted accolade of becoming the first country to block Netflix following its monster 130 country expansion announced in early January.

Telekom Indonesia blocked the service “from all of its platforms” last week, according to the Jakarta Post. While the government distanced itself from involvement, the state-run mobile operator’s concern focused around Netflix’s ability to run violent and adult content without adhering to content moderation regulations in the country, which has the world’s largest Muslim population.

The company also lacks a permit to do business in Indonesia — a problem that Uber and local rival Grab know well enough —  which was cited as another reason. So, if you think challenges with licensing in your country are responsible for Netflix running a small library of content, imagine what it’s like in Indonesia where a lack of paperwork is responsible for switching off access to the service in its entirety for users.

For a reminder of how random/unclear bans can be in Indonesia, refer to motorbike taxi services, which were blocked then unblocked during a 24-hour period last month.

You Can’t Write That About Us

Example two comes from Malaysia, where Medium was blocked for carrying an investigative report delving into corruption claims related to Prime Minister Najib.

The media outlet — Sarawak Report — regularly publishes stories on Medium because its website is already blocked in Malaysia, but its latest report appeared to be enough to push authorities to take action. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission contacted Medium asking that the post be removed for being “false, unsubstantiated, misleading, and in violation of the written law of Malaysia.”

Medium stood firm, however, claiming that it stands by the report and investigative journalism generally.

“Medium’s in no position to evaluate the truth of the Sarawak Report’s Medium post. We’ve received no evidence that the post violates any of our Rules, or any law,” the company wrote in a blog post.

Since it uses HTTPS to secure its site, Malaysian authorities were left with the choice of leaving the post as it is, since Medium wouldn’t remove it, or blocking the website entirely. It look the latter choice, so now the publishing platform is no longer available in the country. Quite absurd.

Give Us All Your Data

Exhibit three comes from Thailand, where the government — which came to power via a military coup in 2014 — is pressuring leading Internet companies Google, Facebook and chat app Line, which has over 30 million users in the country, to censor content on their services.

Thailand has cracked down hard on dissenting voices online since the coup — last week a politician was arrested for sharing a video mocking junta leader (and Prime Minister) Prayuth Chan-ocha — and it is reported to be developing a single internet gateway. If deployed, such a system would allow authorities to directly control the availability of online content without needing to liaise with mobile operators, ISPs or Internet companies like Google, Facebook and Line.

The Internet has the potential to positively impact life in this vibrant part of the world, but these three examples — and there are countless that are thrown up each week — show the kind of challenges that push back on progress.