Southeast Asia grapples with Internet freedom issues
Governments and citizens are struggling to implement policies that would promote Internet freedom in Myanmar and Cambodia as cyberspace continues to proliferate into the daily lives of citizens.
In countries like the United States, the Internet has become a place where individuals can interact with one another, report on current events and conduct business day in and day out. Because the U.S. is so advanced in its infrastructure, was home to many of the major developments that made the Internet what it is today and the country's long history of freedom of speech issues, online activity is relatively free.
However, other countries and economies have been emerging at a rapid pace lately. One of the major products of this growth is an increase in online users. But with this increase comes a number of challenges that could either spell an Internet future that is free and open, or one that is heavily regulated and censored – undoing many of the benefits that online activity could provide.
Myanmar at a crossroads
About three years ago, the Burmese government began to transition from a military dictatorship toward a civilian rule and democracy. With this transition came a more open Internet and more diverse online activity. For instance, an estimated 80 percent of the country's online population uses Facebook, according to Al Jazeera, while more and more news organizations that were previously banned are setting up shop within the country once again.
However, with this growth has come some challenges. For instance, opinions against a minority Muslim population, known as the Rhohingya, have grown louder with hate speech becoming all to common. Other accusations about hired commenters spreading propaganda throughout many of the country's most popular sites has grown quite common as well.
The leader of the company's major opposition party recently said that there needs to be a greater commitment to truth among the country's journalists. This is an important notion to keep in mind, however, it is one that could cause problems if the government decides to act on enforcing truthful reporting, as in many cases, even this can become a subjective matter.
Troubles in Cambodia
While Myanmar seems to find itself at a crossroads, the Cambodian government is working to impose strict restrictions on the country's Internet policies. Global Voices Online reported that the media advocacy group Article 19 obtained a leaked translation of a new cybercrime bill that many netizens fear would impose sever censorship policies.
One of the most alarming elements of the bill is Article 28, which would make it illegal to post content that would portray the country or its rulers in a bad light. These kinds of policies have grown quite common in many countries where the government is particularly autocratic. For instance, China's censorship policies have become so extensive and notorious that together they are known as the "Great Firewall of China."
Another provision of the bill would limit non-factual or slanderous speech about government agencies, ministries and officials. The problem with this provision is that is could limit any form of government criticism. One of the biggest developments of the Internet is that the line between citizen and journalists is blurring. So something as simple as a Facebook comment could potentially fall under this provision.
These provisions are an example of what could happen in Myanmar if the government is not careful. The Internet can provide significant economic and societal benefits, but only when its channels are kept open. With out people being free to comment and research the way they would like, without infringing on the rights of others, much of the good the Internet can bring about is limited.