<b>Singapore.</b> It’s not just dictators. Governments around the world have tried for years to control the Internet, dismayed by its potential to incite violence, spread mischief and distribute pornography and dissent.
But in Asia, home to everything from robust democracies to totalitarian regimes, many governments are realizing that controlling online content, including dissent, will not work.
Even China, which strongly regulates the Internet and is grappling with how to deal with popular microblogs read by hundreds of millions of people, is unlikely to block them completely.
“Governments are committing quite a bit of resources and time to block Web sites. I think it’s a panic reaction,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“They have some temporary, immediate discouraging effect, but over the longer term they won’t be effective because people will still find a way to get the news they want to hear. Once people have been exposed to the Internet and see the power of getting information free to your computer, it’s a very addictive feeling of empowerment.”
That snowballing of sentiment has played out this year in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, where governments have been overthrown by movements bolstered by the Internet. The United States tried to block the release of the Wikileaks cables, and British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to censor social networking sites after riots last month.
Asia is also learning first-hand about the ubiquitous power of the wired world.
In India, authorities were taken aback last month when an anticorruption campaign multiplied on Facebook, Twitter and other sites and drew tens of thousands of people to protest sites.
But there were no signs the government tried to crack down on the online crusade, even if it could have.
“At the rate in which it gained momentum, I don’t think the government actually had the time to ban the movement,” said Vijay Mukhi, a cyber-security expert.
He said the government did block some Web sites, but Internet users in a nation with millions of tech-savvy engineers and software developers could easily bypass controls.
“The government doesn’t realize that blocking Web sites is a futile task because it has become so easy to find other means to get access to banned sites,” Mukhi said. “They are just helping to popularize those particular sites and inviting more traffic.”
South Korea, the world’s most wired nation with 80 percent of households having Internet access, is one of two electoral democracies in the world to substantially block access to some sites, said a study of 37 countries this year by watchdog Freedom House. The other is Turkey.
South Korea heavily filters online content involving North Korea, but its citizens continue to lobby for more access.
“No healthy democracy is possible where free speech is not tolerated,” said a letter this month from the Electronic Frontier Foundation organization to President Lee Myung-bak. “The expansive controls on online speech established in South Korea lack oversight and prevent citizens from accessing valuable expressive, historical, political and artistic online content.”
Singapore blocks a symbolic list of 100 sites but does not bar any site for political content. Despite strict controls on political discussion, it allowed criticism of government policies in the run-up to general elections this year.
The ruling People’s Action Party easily won the election, but it scored its lowest-ever percentage of the vote, and the opposition made historic gains.
Malaysia pledged in 1996 not to impose controls on the Internet and was rewarded with investments from companies such as Microsoft and Cisco Systems.
The decision led to vibrant online political commentary. Analysts said the government had quietly considered some form of filters but decided against it.
“The government feels largely helpless in trying to manage online dissent because methods such as threatening to close down newspapers and targeting bloggers makes netizens angrier and more likely to lash out against the government,” political analyst Ong Kian Ming said.
“Netizens have been emboldened. It is hard to see how the government can try to turn this tide without reaping a lot of negative reaction.”
The feeling is growing that imposing any sort of controls on online political debate backfires.
“All it does is draw attention to the person and the message, who tend to be small players anyway,” said Cherian George, an associate professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
“The pattern is that the blogger who gets censored becomes more famous than he otherwise might be. The only situation where it might work in the short-term would be volatile, fast-moving situations. Governments can shut down all communications during violence or a riot, but this can’t be a long-term solution.”