‘Fitna’and digital exclusion

The Jakarta Post
Saturday, April 12, 2008
Op-Ed

by Jennie S. Bev, San Francisco

In October last year, Indonesian Internet users enjoyed momentary happiness when Communications and Information Minister Muhammad Nuh personally promised “free speech among bloggers”, and then when both the government and private sectors agreed to provide Internet connections for at least 20 percent of the population by 2012.

Investor Group Against Digital Divide (IGADD), which was the non-profit think-tank behind this grand plan, said users of broadband technology would increase by 20 times, which would greatly bridge the “digital divide” between rich and poor.

Finally, Indonesia, as the last truly unwired Asian country, has decided to go digital with the protection of free speech. And for a country that was acknowledged for its peaceful transition into democracy, with the prestigious Democracy Award from the International Association of Political Consultants (IAPC), in 2007, it seemed as if things had finally fallen into the right places. Yet the truth bit hard. Indonesians have not won the battle to win democracy, or even narrowed the digital divide. It may as well be on a dwindling downward spiral into the darkness, if things remain as they are.

Fitna, a 15-minute film by Geert Wilders posted on YouTube (a video-sharing Web site) has been causing a lot of stir worldwide. The Indonesian government, which was represented by Minister Mohammad Nuh, ordered a temporary blockage of YouTube, MySpace, Google Video and other video-sharing sites until the video was removed.

Such a reaction was understandable given Indonesia’s sensitivity toward anything related to SARA, which is an Indonesian acronym for ethnicity-religion-race-intergroup. Historically — from the Dutch colonization, in which social stratification was a part of divide-and-conquer politics, to Soeharto’s version of democracy, in which responsible free speech was far from a reality – such issues have always been fragile and have been used in various ways to control a society in draconian mode.

For more than three centuries, Indonesians have been living in the so-called “infancy” stage of acceptance of differences, including varied spectrums of opinion pertaining to religions. And apparently the government has not ceased to cradle such a mentality by “naively” asking Web 2.0 user-generated grand Internet players like Google and YouTube, whose soft power far exceeds Indonesia as a whole, to remove any offensive materials from the Internet, whenever they feel like it. Would this be effective? Or is it just a “testing the new car” syndrome?

An Internet censorship policy, which is now conveniently regulated in a bill (which will become law within a month) on information and electronic transactions, must be exercised with caution. Used excessively, it would only undermine efforts in bridging the digital divide between highly-wired and less-wired countries and between wired and unwired populations. At the same time it would also create a so-called “unnatural digital divide” or even a “digital exclusion”.

China is another good example of an “unnatural” digital divide, in which the government has implemented its own country-wide content filter since 1991. In 2000, State Council Order No. 292, created the first content restrictions for ICPs (internet content providers?), which regulated China-based Web sites not to be able to link to overseas news Web sites or carry news from foreign media without approval.

The government of China, supported by 30,000 members of its Internet police task force and strong financial capacity, has been showing its supremacy to control information quite impressively, especially considering the Internet today consists of mostly user-generated content. The price, of course, is sky high. While China’s economy is flourishing, its political and civic maturity is questionable.

While it may hurt to listen to opposing views pertaining to things we care about so dearly — including our own religion — the Internet has actually been providing the world with an
unprecedented capacity which did not exist previously: the wisdom of the masses.

Unless Indonesia would prefer to be digitally excluded in a highly wired world, it would be wiser to play the Internet game gracefully and smartly in maintaining the virtual equilibrium. After all, the critical masses are readily available, we just need to tap into them.

Don’t retaliate to bigotry with bigotry and don’t retaliate to hatred with hatred, not just because this is ungraceful but, more importantly, it is impossible in this interconnected,
mobile world of today.

The writer is a columnist and a doctorate candidate in e-commerce based in Northern California.

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