On September 4 , the ASEAN member nations (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) stated an agreement to collaborate on devising restrictions on Internet communication. On September 16, a number of human rights, free expression and electronic privacy organizations wrote the following letter to the ASEAN secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia to convey their concerns about this development. Similar letters sent by the same organizations were also sent to the ASEAN members.
We, the undersigned organizations, are writing to express our deep concern about the decision announced on September 4 by ASEAN member nations to collectively regulate communication on the Internet. The agreement was announced in Singapore, at the close of a meeting of officials from ASEAN member nations that was organized by the Singapore Broadcasting Authority.
We would like to respectfully remind the ASEAN nations that content-based restrictions on online communication violate internationally guaranteed rights of free expression. As stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The agreement did not include the adoption of a common regulatory framework by ASEAN member nations. However, we are concerned that a number of delegates to the meeting reportedly expressed support for Singapore's recently established Internet Code of Practice. Human Rights Watch/Asia has written to the Singaporean government to oppose these new regulations, which impose sweeping controls on content, including political discussion. The regulations have already resulted in arbitrary censorship of at least one newsgroup message. They will surely induce a chill on on-line speech in Singapore, and, as evidenced by the ASEAN decision, they will affect online speech throughout the region.
It has been reported that one of the reasons for the ASEAN agreement was a concern for preserving cultural values. While we recognize the importance of representation for all cultures on the Internet, we oppose censorship as a means of ensuring respect for cultural norms. We believe that the most effective means of responding to offensive content is by disseminating more content. Censoring offensive material will not remove it from the Internet; it will simply cause it to be reproduced on additional Internet sites.
We believe that the lack of agreement on a common regulatory strategy by ASEAN member nations demonstrates the futility of attempts by nations or groups of nations to introduce online content regulation schemes. Within the ASEAN group itself, the cultural values of Vietnam, for example, differ significantly from cultural values of the Philippines. It is unlikely that the diverse group of ASEAN nations will reach an agreement on the specifics of what should be censored, and how that censorship should be accomplished. Moreover, because the Internet is a global medium, moves to restrict online content will initiate battles for competing cultural values on an international scale.
In closing, we would like to add that the attempt to restrict Internet communication will detract from the many benefits that electronic communication is bringing to the region. We hope that the ASEAN nations will reconsider their unfortunate decision and instead focus on the new opportunities that the Internet can provide to the citizens of the region.