Is the internet a tool for greater democratization in Asia?

As Asia looks forward to a progressive future, the technologies of mass communication will play an important role. At this point in time, it is the Internet, with its various forms of information dispersal. But, as this medium becomes more common place, the wielders of power will attempt to put restrictions on its use. Empirical evidence shows that the Internet can be successfully controlled. A case in point is the drastic concessions that Yahoo Inc. was compelled to make to facilitate enforcement of local laws. If local laws are not enforced through the Internet, the service providers may be forced to adopt the most stringent among them in an effort to breach none. But, this is only hypothetical and it is equally likely that the most liberal (the least restrictive) among the set of national laws would be chosen. In fact, during the last few years of the twentieth century, when the Internet was growing and consolidating, it was at its most liberal and least regulated (Milton Mueller, 2007). This period saw the rise of several progressive movements for social change, predominantly in the continents of Latin America and Asia, which availed of the Internet’s potential to organize people at the grassroots and promulgate their cause. A classic example is the success of World Social Forum (WSF), an annual event organized by nations in the global south to discuss political reform and social progress. The Internet has had an important role in bringing these scattered communities across the Third World together. For most Asian countries, the WSF is more important than the World Economic Forum (WEF). While unregulated Internet has the potential to undermine governmental authority, they do provide other beneficial opportunities (Milton Mueller, 2007).

The issue of regulating internet content is very contentious, given the exponential growth in Asia, for both commercial and informational purposes. A case study of Asia’s most promising country – China – and its government’s view of the Internet would serve to illustrate the broader issues pertaining to democracy in the age of Internet. The case of Chinese government’s control over Internet content in the country has attracted much criticism from human rights advocates. All internal communication of Chinese citizens are monitored and filtered for content that could be potentially subversive. This meant that those indigenous Tibetans who still reside in Tibetan Autonomous Region, cannot voice their opinions on this contentious issue. This suppression of free speech is particularly odd, given that the Internet has served as an instrument for promoting civil liberties and progressive causes in the rest of the world. Such repressive tendencies in Asia’s most promising nation betray a lack of correlation between economic prosperity and international recognition on the one hand and harsh internal social realities on the other (Dickson, 2006).

However, it is a sign of progress in Asia, that through the same medium of communication exiled Tibetans have organized their protests and demonstrations against the authoritarianism of the Communist Party in China. For instance, in the lead up to the Olympic Games in Beijing last year, the Chinese authorities had a tough time dealing with Tibetan protesters. The power of new digital technology to facilitate legitimate political dissent is something that needs to be preserved and encouraged. Irrespective of the fact that Tibet had traditionally been a feudal society ridden with oppression and brutality, neutral political commentators across the world agree that the Tibetan fight for liberation from China is not unreasonable. If a small group of exiled Tibetans can make such valid political statements, the inclusion of Tibetans still residing in the plateau in this process might have led to substantial political changes, which goes on to suggest that progressive political transitions in Asia will find greater expression if technological advancement is used constructively. From this Tibetan example, one can clearly see how a free Internet will help social justice and democracy in Asia and beyond (Goldsmith & Wu, 2006).

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