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Jakarta Post

Why does Indonesia need a debate on internet freedom?

  • A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, March 10, 2016   /  09:14 am

As President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo played virtual reality ping pong with Facebook'€™s Mark Zuckerberg in Silicon Valley, the government was throwing its own curveballs by unexpectedly announcing plans to ban over 400 websites '€” including Tumblr, a popular social media platform.

Citing Tumblr'€™s supposedly pornographic and pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) content, the proposed ban followed a decision from Indonesia'€™s largest internet service provider, state-owned Telkom, to block access to entertainment website Netflix for fear of violating Indonesia'€™s Pornography Law.

Perhaps most contentious was the Communications and Information Ministry'€™s declaration that, '€œWe will block them first, then we'€™ll talk.'€ Such a unilateral attitude with no prior consultation with the offending party or the public sparked widespread anger, with the government forced to backtrack only a day later.

The debacle undermined President Jokowi'€™s vision of realizing Indonesia as '€œthe largest digital economy in Southeast Asia with an estimated value of US$130 billion by 2020.'€

At the same time the issue served as a timely reminder of the state of Indonesia'€™s internet freedom.

In this regard, it is worth noting several facts. First, while internet penetration is arguably still relatively low at 30 percent of the total population, there are nonetheless an estimated 64 million Facebook accounts, 20 million Twitter users and 5 million active bloggers.

Such is the influence of the internet in the country, Freedom House ( 2015 ) argued that the internet was '€œtransforming the social and political landscape in Indonesia'€.

This was most apparent during the landmark 2014 general elections that were dubbed the '€œsocial media elections'€. Studies showed that in 2014 there were 200 million election-related interactions on Facebook and 95 million election-related tweets posted on Twitter.

Given the internet'€™s enormous impact '€” both qualitatively and quantitatively '€” the government has unsurprisingly sought to regulate it to '€œadvance the intellectual life of the people'€ and to '€œprevent its misuse with due regard to religious and sociocultural values'€.

This difficult balancing act has been controversial, with the government accused by relevant stakeholders of restricting internet freedoms in the country.

Particularly contentious are the State Intelligence Law, the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law and the aforementioned Pornography Law.

The vague terms used in these laws '€” such as what constitutes pornography '€” have left them vulnerable to misuse and have seen the authorities apply them in an arbitrary and heavy-handed manner.

Perhaps most contentious are the laws'€™ online defamation provisions that carry punishment of up to six years'€™ imprisonment and fines of up to Rp 1 billion (US$76,000).

Freedom House has criticized such provisions as they have been '€œrepeatedly used to prosecute Indonesians for online expression'€ and applied '€œoften to intimidate and to silence critics'€. Indeed, the number of online defamation prosecutions almost doubled in 2014 with 41 cases up from 21 cases in 2013 and only 10 cases in 2012.

Infamously, individuals have been imprisoned for exposing corruption by officials, such as politicians and police officers.

Freedom House ( 2015 ) argued that the internet was '€œtransforming the social and political landscape in Indonesia'€.

For example, YouTube user Adlun Fiqri was arrested and charged under the ITE Law by police in Ternate, North Maluku, after he had uploaded a video that showed police officers taking bribes from traffic offenders.

More bizarrely, individuals have been sent to jail for supposedly insulting entire cities. University student Florence Sihombing, for example, served two months in jail and was forced to pay a Rp 10 million fine for posting negative remarks about the people of Yogyakarta.

In addition, in the current climate of the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) movement, the government has become concerned at the use of the internet to recruit Indonesians to join the radical extremist group.

Earlier last year, 19 websites were blocked for allegedly featuring radical Islamic teaching. However, like the proposed ban on Tumblr, the blocks attracted a great deal of public criticism for including moderate websites and shortly afterward 12 of the 19 had their blocks lifted.

From the above, it can be said that the state of Indonesia'€™s internet freedom is marked by poorly drafted laws that have consequently left them open to misuse, and employed in a unilateral, arbitrary and heavy-handed manner.

Such a state of affairs clearly goes against President Jokowi'€™s vision of transforming the country into a digital economy.

With internet penetration still relatively low and mostly concentrated on the islands of Java and Sumatra, there is still the enormous potential for internet usage to balloon even further as the information technology revolution spreads not only wider to cover more areas of the vast archipelago but also deeper as it engages more stakeholders in Indonesian society who find themselves able to afford internet-enabled devices.

These trends will undoubtedly further transform the social and political landscape in Indonesia and make it more likely that the government will try to increase its efforts to regulate the internet.

While it cannot be denied that the government has a role to play to mitigate the more negative content found online, it is hoped that it can learn from the problems highlighted above so that its efforts to regulate the internet do not restrict freedoms and instead truly advance the intellectual life of the people.

The writer is head of the ASEAN Studies Program at the Habibie Center in Jakarta. The views expressed are his own.

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