Government and governance, National security, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, Southeast Asia

12 March 2019

To preserve its democracy, Indonesia must reconsider its current cyber-policy and rethink its political censorship measures, Thomas Paterson writes.

Indonesia has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth slightly above 5 per cent per year. Much of this growth has been generated by cyberspace expansion and the creation of new cyber-based businesses in the e-commerce sector.

It is estimated that Indonesia will constitute 46 per cent of Southeast Asia’s e-commerce in value by 2025. E-commerce is important to Indonesia because the government sees it as one of the main ways to reach its target of 7 per cent annual GDP growth by 2025.

These e-commerce businesses have been able to thrive due to the rising number of Indonesians connecting to the Internet. As of 2017, Indonesia had approximately 143 million Internet users, which will further increase as the economy grows.

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Digital connectivity in Indonesia has created many positive economic opportunities but has also led to problems with cybercrime and disinformation. Indonesia’s out-dated legislation means that cyber-criminals use the archipelago as a haven to conduct their activities.

Recent examples include 103 Chinese nationals detained in May 2018 on top of another 153 arrested the previous August, both for alleged cyber-fraud targeting other Chinese nationals. These criminals were using Indonesia as a base because it is harder for Chinese authorities to track them.

Indonesia also has a disinformation problem. President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has himself been a victim of concerted disinformation campaigns. The most significant of these occurred during the 2014 election when he was a presidential candidate. This campaign falsely asserted that Jokowi was a Chinese-Christian and the son of communists. Another notable large-scale disinformation campaign was the spread of the allegation that China was trying to wage biological warfare against Indonesia using contaminated chili seeds.

In order to try and combat these issues, the Indonesian government has announced that the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, or Kominfo, will hold weekly ‘fake news’ briefings to try and increase digital literacy ahead of the 2019 election. These briefings will involve information about recent ‘hoaxes’ and the relevant facts in an effort to help Indonesians think more critically about the news and information they consume.

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Problematically, the Indonesian government is also pursuing numerous negative measures to combat cyberspace issues. These include the implementation of a new US $14 million Internet censorship system. Although this censorship system relates mostly to pornographic and extremist content, it could be used to block whatever content the government considers ‘negative’ in line with Article 40 of the Electronic Information and Transactions Law.

Indonesia has a history of manual censorship of pornographic and extremist content, but there have also been worrying instances of political censorship. This includes the blocking of 300 social media accounts and websites by police without clarity over what the procedural framework was for those decisions. Police cited so-called ‘hate speech’, which only included hostile political expression directed towards the president and the national police chief, as a reason to block those accounts.

In 2017, the Harvard University-based Internet Monitor reported instances of websites being blocked that contained criticism of the government and Islam. The Open Observatory of Network Interference and the Malaysian-based Sinar Project also found that 161 sites had been blocked, including websites expressing criticism towards Islam, as well as political criticism more broadly.

While manual censorship has been occurring in Indonesia for years, automation will make the system far more effective. If instances of political censorship continue, let alone increase, this will be highly damaging for Indonesia’s democratic health. Even the perception that the Indonesian government can arbitrarily censor political expression is damaging.

There is also a distinct lack of appetite for the strengthening of democratic institutions in Indonesia. This is due to the general apathy towards democracy and democratic institutions amongst the ruling elite from across the political spectrum.

In a political environment where the powerful are indifferent toward democracy, the motivation to strengthen democratic institutions and not engage in censorship and draconian legislative revisions is decidedly lacking.

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In a world where China has clearly demonstrated how censorship and tight control of cyberspace can work very effectively, it is clear that the Indonesian political elite has no incentive to deny themselves of such powerful tools by voluntarily strengthening legal frameworks. This indicates that Indonesian democracy is not only at considerable risk from cyberspace-amplified problems, but are also in danger due to the very reforms and measures that are being introduced to combat those problems.

A positive step the Indonesian government could take, that would further build on the announcement concerning the weekly Kominfo briefings, would be to commit to funding a countering-disinformation style television show. With Australia’s advisory assistance this could be modelled on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Media Watch. The show’s aims would be to counter disinformation by providing factual information to the public on recent ‘hoaxes’. Estonian public broadcasting and Danish media help combat Russian disinformation campaigns and their effect on the public in a similar way.

This would help further increase digital literacy in a cost-effective manner by providing counter-disinformation content in a digestible fashion that can reach a wide range of Indonesian citizens and help them learn how to be more critical about the information they engage with online.

The Indonesian government should also publicly outline a framework for how they administer and manage the new automatic censorship system so as to be transparent about its implementation. Greater transparency and a framework for managing the system would also help make it harder for it to be misused.

Political censorship in Indonesia is counter to Australia’s International Cyber Security Strategy’s aim of encouraging a ‘free and open’ Internet in the Indo-Pacific. There is, therefore, a role here for Australia too, where the government should actively encourage their Indonesian counterparts to adopt these recommendations. Ultimately, it is the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s responsibility to lobby the Indonesian government on these issues.

This piece is published in partnership with The Monsoon Project, the student-run academic blog based at Crawford School of Public Policy.

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