Attempts by South-East Asian governments to control online activity has become a matter of concern
Such ironfisted moves may hamper socioeconomic progress in these countries, say advocates
IN June, Singapore's Media Development Authority (MDA) announced a licensing scheme for news websites, which sparked protests from civil society and Internet companies.
In Malaysia, two 'sex bloggers' got into hot soup over a Hari Raya greeting that was in bad taste, which resulted in their arrest under the Sedition Act. While tensions continued to simmer, a female Muslim dog trainer was arrested over a YouTube video she had made three years ago, but which was reposted by an unknown party recently.
In June, a suspect who had allegedly insulted the Yang DiPertuan Agong (or king) on Facebook was tracked down and detained by police.
In Vietnam, the Government has issued a new decree which curbs online free speech and forces foreign companies to keep servers inside the country.
In Thailand, things look especially dire with the Government having threatened to jail Internet users for posting or ‘liking’ political rumours on Facebook. Most recently, Pol Maj Ge Pisit Pao-in, commander of the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD), announced a plan to check Thai citizens’ Line conversations.
According to a report by Tech In Asia, the police agency had asked Line Corporation in Japan to cooperate and if it agrees, all 15 million Line user names in Thailand, along with their conversations, will be sent to the police. [Amended to reflect correct news site cited].
However according to an update on Twitter by The Next Web Asia editor Jon Russell, Line has stated that it "has not received any official request from the Thai police."
These moves by South-East Asian governments to put in place control mechanisms for online activity is of concern, especially considering the much-touted critical role digital economies can, and will, play in propelling national growth.
A 2009 World Bank Report found that access to affordable, high quality Internet and mobile phone services enables development across all levels of the economy and society.
For every 10 percentage-point increase in high speed Internet connections, there is an increase in economic growth of 1.3 percentage points.
“Governments should proactively encourage the development of local IT services industries through policies and incentives directed at entrepreneurs and the private sector, and through investments in skills and infrastructure,” said World Bank economist Christine Zhen-Wei Qiang, editor of the report.
The report also identified the mobile platform as the single most powerful way to reach and deliver public and private services to hundreds of millions of people in remote and rural areas across the developing world.
According to a Mobile Economy report released by the GSMA, the number of unique mobile subscribers in Asia Pacific reached 1.5 billion at the end of 2012, and another 1.5 billion new mobile connections are expected by 2017.
"Mobile is already having a profound impact across all Asia Pacific countries, with spectacular growth in service penetration, driven by investment in infrastructure and continued innovation in devices and services,” said Anne Bouverot, GSMA director general.
Joint research unveiled by McKinsey and Google in May last year showed that the Internet contributes an average 1.9% of gross domestic product (GDP) in aspiring countries -- US$366 billion in 2010. By comparison, the Internet in developed countries contributes an average 3.4% of GDP.
McKinsey defines 'aspiring nations' as developing countries that “are on the cusp of becoming developed,” according to Nimal Manuel, principal at the research firm.
The report also revealed that 143,000 Internet-related businesses were started every year in 30 aspiring countries, and noted that various policies can help or hinder Internet ecosystem development.
“Regulatory barriers and firewalls can impede the free flow of information, which is a necessary precondition for empowering users to fully leverage the Internet. Well-intentioned and important controls on content and data management to safeguard children, for instance, can, however, be restrictive in business operations,” the report stated.
It also noted that protectionist barriers are another potential hurdle, blocking the ability of ‘foreign’ companies to compete using the Internet. "Such barriers can reduce the competitiveness of local companies. Consumers lose out when competition is reduced, and consumer surplus is among the most important forms of Internet impact,” it added.
Next Page: Rise of Internet regulation creating negative impact on business environment