Is a splinternet emerging? ASEAN nations are turning to a Chinese model on internet censorship

Photo Credit: Mike MacKenzie/Flickr

ASEAN governments are passing a slew of cybersecurity and internet censorship laws. These internet restrictions could be more damaging than the misinformation and inappropriate content they aim to control.


As the world attempts to recover from the abhorrent mass shootings in Christchurch last month, many governments are re-evaluating their internet and social media censorship laws. The gunman live-streamed the shooting on social media, reigniting discussions over the role internet and social media companies play in moderating acceptable online content.

Three weeks later, Australia passed legislation opening social media companies up to punishment if they fail to act swiftly in removing “abhorrent, violent material” from their platforms. 

While governments have honourable intentions rooted in curbing the spread of violent and inflammatory material, their rush to legislate and censor the internet could have unexpected, catastrophic consequences.

Will a ‘splinternet’ emerge?

Australia is hardly an isolated case. China, which already has extensive government internet restrictions in place, recently issued new censorship laws. Democratic countries like the UK, Canada, and Singapore are also opting for increased government oversight over what is visible to citizens online.

This increased government control over citizens’ access to the internet runs the risk of creating a ‘splinternet’, cordoned off parts of the internet with strict censorship laws and restrictions on what the population can view.

Google, for example, cannot operate in China under its US operating model. The strict censorship laws and data collection regulations caused the company to pull its search engine from the country in 2010. Now it is attempting to reenter the Chinese market with Dragonfly, a purpose-built version of the search engine specifically for China.

If more countries implement their own censorship laws, more segregated pockets of the internet will develop. International search engines and news sites could pull out of these pockets, severely restricting the flow of information across international borders.

This was visible when the EU adopted its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR set strict guidelines on how companies should protect the personal data of EU citizens. When it came into effect last year, many US news outlets blocked European citizens’ access to their sites. For many of the news outlets, the loss of European readers was better than running the risk of being fined for breaching the new data handling regulations.

The future will be regulated

“It’s dystopian, but I think China’s [Great Firewall] is going to be the future,” mused Aram Sinnreich, an associate professor at the American University’s School of Communication.

Part of the reason for this is that self-regulation from internet companies and social media platforms has failed. Facebook posts fueled violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar. The platform also left the 2016 US presidential election vulnerable to foreign interference and, most recently, allowed a shooter to broadcast his murderous killing spree live, across the world.

Source: Freedom House via Statista

Southeast Asia is at the heart of the internet censorship debate

Southeast Asia represents something of a lynchpin in the ideological shift towards internet censorship. In recent months ASEAN nation’s have almost unanimously pivoted away from the Silicon Valley model of unrestricted internet freedom and embraced China’s regulatory model.

Vietnam’s new law on cybersecurity came into effect on January 1. It required tech companies operating in the country to open an office on Vietnamese and store data on domestic users locally. Thailand’s new cybersecurity law passed in February. Based on China’s model, it allows the government to seize citizen’s data without a warrant if national security interests are threatened.

Singapore also unveiled a draft law earlier this month which would introduce prison sentences for individuals that do not remove known falsehoods from their social media pages.

Source: Freedom House

Is censorship the answer?

For VPN companies, censorship would be a boon. However, restricting the free flow of digital information has significant repercussions.

Censorship measures leave democracies vulnerable to totalitarianism. When laws designed to prevent misinformation are used as a political weapon, they silence healthy opposition discourse and dissent.

Daphne Keller of the Stanford Centre for Internet and Society said: “When lawmakers create new rules that have never been tested by courts, like Australia’s new law or the rules proposed in the UK’s White Paper- and then tell platforms to enforce them, we can only expect that a broad swathe of perfectly legal speech is going to disappear.”

In Singapore, for example, the new law would give the Singaporean government the freedom to decide what content is acceptable on social media platforms.

International governments implementing new internet restrictions could also have a detrimental impact on ASEAN’s emerging economies. Restrictions, as Europe’s GDPR demonstrated, disrupt free markets.

At a time when ASEAN nations are increasingly plugging into the digital economy, censorship and the creation of a splinternet would throw up digital barriers to cross-border trade and could inhibit businesses’ opportunities for growth. Chinese-style restrictions could see the business potential of the internet ripped away from ASEAN businesses just as they are coming online in their droves.

Early pioneers of the internet believed that its arrival would wrestle control away from nation states and governments and empower civilians. It has done just that. Although, in doing so it has empowered some of the most dangerous elements of society.

The shootings in Christchurch and the role Facebook played in the violence against the Rohingya demonstrated that when left untethered, the internet can be a force for evil. But the government’s knee-jerk response, to take power away from the people and restrict their civil liberties could be even more disastrous.