As with so many other industries -- medical tourism, electric cars, phablets -- Asia is widely considered to be the future of the Internet. There is, however, one very big “if”: If only the continent’s governments can get over their tendencies toward overregulation and censorship.
Almost half the world’s Web users live in the region. Asia boasts some of the world’s fastest broadband speeds, as well as the fastest rate of growth in mobile broadband. Its share of the global e-commerce market stands at one-third and growing.
So why are Asian governments working so hard to sabotage this glorious rise? In its Freedom on the Net 2013 report, Freedom House ranked 12 Asian nations as “not free” or “partly free.” Only two -- Japan and the Philippines -- qualified as “free.” Half of those nations slipped in the rankings from last year, with democratic India plunging the furthest of any country in the world. It’s now tied with autocratic Cambodia.
These are sorry numbers. Most of the world’s attention naturally tends to focus on openly repressive regimes such as those in China and Vietnam. The Chinese deploy more online censors than soldiers, and draconian new laws governing microblogs have stifled its once-vibrant social media. Vietnam’s Orwellian new Decree 72 bans any content that might “go against the state of the socialist republic of Vietnam.”
Just as damaging, however, are measures taken by Asia’s democratically elected governments to limit what their citizens can see, say and share online. These rules are often well-meaning -- efforts to restrict hate speech, for instance, or to block pornographic material. Yet vague, badly written laws and murky or nonexistent oversight easily lend themselves to abuse.
The officials writing these rules often come out of the old propaganda ministries, and their priorities remain security and social stability. That mindset is damagingly narrow. Asia’s regulatory morass hobbles Internet businesses, which have to spend much of their time and money figuring out how to comply.
The Indian online-classifieds site Quickr, for example, employs a quarter of its 400 employees just monitoring posts. Companies that develop for local markets with very specific rules -- such as South Korea, which has long required websites to use outdated security technologies such as ActiveX -- are at a disadvantage in the global market. Growing Web restrictions are thought to be one reason that Asia has produced virtually no global Internet brands like Google or Facebook.
With growth forecasts dimming, these countries cannot afford to strangle one of the most potentially dynamic sectors of their economies. Models of clear, well-written legislation -- such as the European Union’s E-Commerce Directive -- exist. Limiting liability for online platforms would free them to experiment and to innovate. Governments may have legitimate security concerns, but they need to establish more trusted, transparent and independent oversight mechanisms. Laws restricting online speech are overly broad.
Above all, leaders need to change their mindset. Especially after the Arab Spring protests toppled several regimes in the Middle East, governments in Asia have viewed the rise of the Internet as a potential threat. As more citizens go online, and as more local companies start to produce content and services in local languages, the level of state control over what people think and say will inevitably decline.
The Internet is also a potential catalyst for countries hoping that innovation and entrepreneurialism will one day drive their economies. If Asia misses this opportunity, its own leaders will bear part of the blame.
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