The return of Big Brother to Indonesia?

The Jakarta Post – Opinion, 30 March 2011
Yanuar Nugroho
Manchester, United Kingdom

Advances in Internet technology have changed the way people live. For many it has brought the appealing promises of global community, democracy and openness.

Many others fear technological threats such as alienated individuals, anarchy, surveillance and repression. The House of Representatives’ proposed intelligence bill is a clear example of the latter.

The bill, if enacted into law, would give the authorities a free pass to monitor conversations and exchanges on the Internet.

Even worse, the bill would give legal justification to the National Intelligence Agency (BIN) to detain anyone suspected of threatening public security based on exchanges on social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook.

While the very same social media have given birth of a new type of civic engagement globally, in Indonesia, in the eyes of the bill’s drafters, technology is a threat.

The bill is an anachronism not only in terms of our knowledge economy and information society, but also when considering the democratic progress the nation has made in the reform era.

What are the roots of this anachronism?

First is the inability of the state to comprehend the complexity of information and communication technology (ICT) and its consequences, intended or unintended. As an example, look at how the Communications and Information Technology Ministry imposed Internet blocks, despite their ineffectiveness, to ban access to pornography. It showed not only the naivety of the government, but also the fear and technical incompetence of government officials.

The intelligence bill indicates a similar level of technophobia. Restlessness voiced through social media is seen as a potential security problem, motivating the bill’s drafters to make people subject to arrest for status updates on social media websites.

Such a view is flawed. Freedom of expression is a civil right. The speech of citizens in any medium is an essential right that must be guaranteed by the state — be it in conventional media such as pamphlets or in contemporary media such as Twitter. The unique features of the Internet and social media cannot alone ensure this right.

For those unable to understand the intricacies of technological innovations, it is easy to feel trapped and see the problems and disadvantages technological progress brings to society, rather than acknowledging and taking advantage of its benefits.

The benefits are legion and unexpected. Facebook was used by civil society groups to mobilize support for Prita Mulyasari as well as Corruption Eradication Commission deputies Bibit S. Rianto and Chandra M. Hamzah. The Jalin Merapi civil society group used Twitter to mobilize aid when Mount Merapi erupted.

At the moment, hundreds – if not thousands — humanitarian and environmental “causes” are organized on Facebook, from supporters of the Lapindo mudflow to those who dislike local sinetron soap operas.

Twitter has been instrumental for new civil society movements such as Blood for Life (#BFL) which seeks blood donors, or Save Jakarta (#savejkt), which discuss ideas on improving life in the capital city.

These examples show how the Internet and social media can be used strategically to make social change.

Unfortunately, understanding the rich and nuanced ways that the Internet and social media has transformed our society may be beyond the state’s capacity.

Instead of proactively creating a regulatory framework or ensuring equal access to the telecommunications infrastructure that can help citizens reap the benefits of ICT, the government has used new technology for coercion.

For example, the government’s recent action forcing the makers of BlackBerrys to install Web filters and to build a local server network was interpreted by critics as an exercise of state power aimed at public surveillance.

Perhaps, as Evgeny Morozov said, we all have utopian ideas of the Internet. The very same technology that supports the Internet and social media are as much tools for authoritarian regimes to control or coerce populations as they are for “liberation”.

A quick reality check will show that technology has been used to repress as well as liberate nations.

If the intelligence bill is enacted there is a possibility that civil society activists (including trade unionists, rights activists and political demonstrators) will become targets of the government. The bill would give the authorities a blank check to violate Internet users’ privacy. It is no exaggeration to say that there is a great danger that online privacy may soon just be an illusion.

If we let this happen we will create a “surveillance society” in Indonesia. Orwell’s Big Brother, soon to be more powerful than ever, will come back, watching all of us.

George Washington once said, “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. It is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” The quote from America’s first president reminds us of Juvenal’s question: Who watches the watchmen?

The writer is a Hallsworth research fellow in the political economy of innovation at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom.

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  1. Saturday, 7 May 2011 at 10:37 am | #1

    saya tidak begitu fasih dengan bhasa inggris, tapi acara big brother,yang ditayangkan di TV, seidaknya bersifat iukur2tan, salamkenal pak,,,,lain kali bisa sharing ya…

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