Jun. 28  2022
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Liberating the Cyber Frontier: The Asia Internet Rights Conference

The goals of the conference were to gather information on the Asian ICT industry and internet right issues in Asian countries, and to form international solidarity in order to better defend those rights.

Source  :  BASE21

By Terry Park/Staff Reporter

Land, Bread, and--Broadband?

Historically, peasant grievances and uprisings have centered on the issue of land. For them, access and autonomous cultivation of the soil was a matter of life and death. Peasant struggles for land and freedom still rage on in much of the Third World, but now there is another pivotal site of contestation--the internet.

Introduced to the public in the last decade, the internet has quickly established itself as a critical means of dispensing and retrieving information in a rapidly-evolving global society where information can also mean life or death. But it can also be articulated, much like land, as socio-economic territory--where class conflict takes place, where valuable resources are mined and distributed, where bodies are exploited and ideas are explored.

The internet is a tangible dream in which people can project and dissect symbols of power and resistance, create subversive narratives that challenge the dominant paradigms that reign supreme in the "off-line" world, and also reproduce shinier versions of existing inequalities. Realities and unrealities are converted into HTML at a dizzying rate every day.

Asia is no exception to this post-modern jubilee.

The vast continent of Asia, with its overwhelming diversity of people, languages, religions, social, economic, and political systems, and its complex history of colonialism, underdevelopment, and pockets of accelerated industrialization, has adopted the internet just like the West has. In a region of the world where the peasant, the worker, and the capitalist all rub shoulders together underneath the sweltering sun of neo-liberal globalization, the development of the internet in Asia has followed, and reflects, socio-economic problems, from Japan in the east to India in the west, from the frigid steppes of Mongolia down south to Australia. But to end further analysis here would be to ignore the uneven diffusion of internet technology (IT) that has occurred. There is the temptation to generalize the increasingly intimate relationship between the destinies of the oppressed peoples of the Asian continent with the promise (and problems) that cyberspace holds. To assume anything about Asia, and the future of the internet in Asia, is dangerous.

This is why the first ever Asia Internet Rights Conference, held on the campuses of Chungang and Soongshil University in Seoul from November 8th to the 10th, and organized and hosted by the Korean Progressive Network (Jinbonet), endorsed by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), and sponsored by the Japan Foundation, was a much-needed exploration of the challenges that lie ahead and the valuable experiences that have been gained by seasoned internet rights activists. Coming from Asia, Europe, and North America, these activists uneasily straddle two worlds--one, a reality beset with inequalities, the other, an imaginary space also marked by digital divisions; one, a privilged world of wires, webpages, and regulation, the other, a parallel world of farms, factories, and repression. These worlds are not that all different, but at the same time there is a gap that internet rights activists are attempting to narrow, in various ways and in various contexts. They have been given the weighty responsibility to negotiate the unsteady waters of a fluid situation where accessibility, language, infrastructure, and freedom of expression are constantly-changing variables in a turbulent sea of contradictions. As Karen Banks of APC reminded the participants, "We have many questions, but few answers."

First Day: Language and Power

In a somewhat cavernous auditorium decorated with a large Jinbonet banner declaring, in both Korean and English, "No Censorship on the Internet," many questions were asked in the course of two and a half days, seven sessions, and informal conversations. On the first day, after individual and organization introductions were given, the first two sessions--the "General Situation of the World and Asia" and "Internet Governance" convened.

In the first session, Lee Jong-hoi of Jinbonet (Korea) gave a presentation on the "WTO, World Bank and Neoliberalism," followed by Toshimaru Ogura of JCA-Net (Japan) with a paper on the "General situation of the ICT Industry and the Internet Rights Issue in Asia."

This sparked a vigorous debate in the question-and-answer session. In regards to the question of language, which the South Asian participants raised repeatedly, some stressed the necessity, however unfair, of learning english.

Others pointed out that only the rich elite in each country can afford to learn english, leaving the vast majority of illiterate, non-english speaking masses behind in the internet rat-race.

Even the web itself was questioned.

Norbert Klein, a German activist from Cambodia, warned the room, "We should be very careful not to fall in the trap that the web is the only thing that counts," implying the use of other communication technologies, such as the radio, which may be easier and cheaper to use in more underdeveloped countries.

Chat Garcia Ramilo of Women's Networking Support Programme (WNSP, Philippines), made an interesting observation in regards to the internet and women's liberation, saying, "One good thing that globalization and IT (internet techologies) has done is allowing women to join the workforce in Asia."

On the question of censorship, Oh Ingyu, professor of sociology at Ritsumeikan University in Japan, warned the audience of over-simplication, saying "There are different kinds of censorship," which would be elaborated later on in the sessions on censorship.

Chris Bailey of APC (U.K.) ended the session with a passionate argument: "We can't fight the boss's technology without using his technology...we have to develop our own networks."

Second Day: Moral Dilemnas

The second day saw three sessions: "Digital Divide & Public Access," "Content Regulation vs Free Speech," and "Surveillance vs Privacy."

Chang Yeo-kyung of Jinbonet (Korea), in her presentation on content regulation in Korea, commented, "National security is the most important standard for internet regulation in many Asian countries," later adding, "National security is important but so is freedom of expression."

In describing the mass hysteria surrounding pornography and especially pedophilia in the U.K., Banks said, "We have to find a balance between content regulation and freedom of expression." She later elaborated on the point that the internet is not the problem, but it can exacerbate the problem. "Women and children have always been exploited, so we need to go to the root of the problem." As a result, many participants argued, governments have used real tragedies like child pornography as justifications to regulate all content
on the internet.

As Chang revealed, Korea has instituted internet filtering software in internet cafes, libraries, and other public places, in conjunction with a grading system. As one female participant noted, "It is dangerous for the government to define what is moral or immoral."

According to Banks, some of the tactics organizations can use to bypass censorship mechanisms are: "mirroring," or creating copy websites in other countries, thereby keeping the content alive; using existing tools, people such as sympathetic lawyers, a mainstream press campaign, and networks with other groups to defend content, as APC did in its support of Jinbonet during the anti-POSCO campaign in which parodies of the POSCO logo were made and maintained.

Third Day: Reminders of the Obstacles, Glimpses Into the Possible

The final session, "Internet & Social Movements," highlighted fascinating examples of how the internet has been used to aid mass movements for social justice and to topple repressive regimes. There were also sobering accounts of how some countries differ from others in respect to infrastructure, IT-trained workforce, and level of activist experience in using the internet.

Noor Rahmat Shah Bin Haron of the Centre for Independent Journalism (Malaysia) explained that because of state regulation of the internet and draconian national security legislation, "self-censorship becomes a prevalent custom," which is similar to the situation in the United States and other Western nations. In Malaysia, Haron argued, the internet functions as "counterhegemony and information warfare, organizing and mobilizing mass action," but he noted that the low level of computer literacy presents a challenge to internet activists wishing to integrete IT at the grassroots level.

Ferry Kurniawan of the PAKTA Foundation from Indonesia stated that since the toppling of Suharto a few years ago, 300 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have sprung up, offering a variety of internet services to the public. However, an urban-centered internet infrastructure, a small ICT-trained labor pool attracted to business rather than the NGO sector, and a state that is still authoritarian are tall obstacles for progressive-minded NGO activists.

Yadamsuren Borchuluun, director of the Internet and Information Center in Mongolia, explained the unique situation of her country, which only recently made the transition from Soviet-controlled socialism to capitalism. Though the literarcy rate is 96.9%, a remarkable number but typical for socialist countries, the "social movement in Mongolia is in the initial stage of using IT."

Alan Alegre of the Foundation for Media Alternatives in the Philippines gave a humorous and fascinating exploration of the crucial role the internet and other communication mediums played in the ouster of corrupt former president Joseph Estrada this year. A multitude of anti-Estrada sites were posted with the support of both Filippinos and overseas Filippinos, and many of them had humorous content. As Alegre explained, "If you know the Philippines, you know that joke and paraody sites are crucial to any revolution." At the height of the People Power II revolt, Alegre revealed, 160 million non
-internet text messages were sent a day!

Probably more than any other presenter, Alegre stressed the importance of making the internet relevant and accessible to grassroots organizations and the struggles that directly impact the lives of poor people, giving examples of a plethora of progressive groups, from feminist groups to a group dedicated to preserving the history of the Marcos dictatorship, who have been able to use the internet to create spaces for marginalized voices in Filipino society.

Lee Young-keon of Labornet (Korea) gave an overview of how the deep penetration of IT in Korea, making it number one in the world with over 20 million users, has offered exciting possibilities to the labor movement and other movements for social justice. The Daewoo auto workers struggle, in particular, has received worldwide attention because of their broadcasts of video clips showing the brutal police crackdowns of oftentimes peaceful protestors.

Out of all the Asian countries, Korea has effectively combined grassroots video-making with the internet to publicize and popularize their militant labor struggle. Its advanced IT infrastructure and expertise in the field of progressive film and video is a noteworthy and advantageous privilege.

Sanjiv Pendita of the Asia Monitor Resource Center in Hong Kong emphasized the class nature of the internet and its emergence as a critical arena of social conflict. He said IT has increased the gap between the rich and has polarized society. Furthermore, in regards to geographically-isolated Thai electronic workers, "[Access to] information is a life-and-death situation."

Pendita and Algre were arguably the loudest voices in evoking the serious implications of the internet on oppressed populations, as well as presenting inspiring examples of how poor people and activists have been able to use the internet as a democratic tool to improve social conditions and change the trajectory and nature of progressive struggles, which have in the past been hampered by poor communication.

These two presenters, as well as others, were a contrast to some participants who pushed for corporate and government-funding of IT infrastructure as a solution to the "digital divide," or the growing disparity between the information haves and have-nots.

Deleting the Specter of Colonialism and Capitalism

Clearly, a multiplicity of lines materialized out of the presentations and discussions.

Evident was the vivid nature in which historical forces such as colonialism and neo-liberal globalization have produced the conditions and divisions that confront the diverse cast of participants, not to mention formation of the participants themselves.

The use of english on the internet, the language of cultural imperialism according to many of the activists, and government suppression of information, many of those regimes created and/or backed by the U.S. and its Cold War foreign policy, are just a couple examples of how last weekend's conference was a living, breathing display of the intersection of old conundrums and new frontiers. The process of resolving contradictions, which the internet is fraught with, takes place at the individual, organizational, national, and international level.

The Asia Internet Rights Conference was a vital and valient attempt to tackle a myriad of complex issues, generated by an equally-complex technological phenomenon--the internet--which is itself a socially-constructed set of institutions that carries the potential to reflect, reinforce, and resist current orders of power.

The Revolution may no longer be broadcasted on television, but in the not-too-distant future, it may be viewed on your personal laptop, in RealAudio, and in Malay, Korean, Mongolian, Urdu...

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Labor | Science & ICT | Society | Human Rights
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