Asia's emerging nations may love computers, but they're not always so sure about the information that flows through them.
As growing numbers of Asians race to get on-line, the question of internet censorship has grown increasingly urgent, with a number of nations opting to curb their citizens' access to cyberspace.
In super-regulated Singapore, where censorship has long been a government credo, the authorities have said they'll block web sites containing material "that inflames political, religious or racial sensitivities."
Political parties wishing to create sites on the web also need government licenses. "It's a kind of anti-pollution measure in cyberspace," says Singaporean Information Minister, George Yeo. For its tiny population of around 3 million, Singapore already has over 100,000 internet users.
With its borderless flux of ideas and debates, many Asian governments fear the internet will unleash a flood of subversive propaganda. In Myanmar (formerly Burma), the ruling military junta is taking no chances: unlicensed use of a fax or a modem is punishable by prison sentences of up to 10 years.
Communist stalwarts China and Vietnam are also leery of the information superhighway. Vietnam has long restricted internet traffic to harmless e-mails. Smiling for the camera, Vietnamese officials say they will soon launch their own server. Old habits die hard though and licenses will be obligatory for both service providers and users in Vietnam.
Where internet censorship is concerned China has set an example by erecting a 'gateway' to cyberspace. Undesirable 'bytes' emanating from such sites as Amnesty International and the New York Times are simply turned back at the frontier. China blocks at least 100 blacklisted sites.
Despite its popularity, regulation of the internet in Asia creates an awkward quandary, leaving governments trapped between their desire to modernise while keeping their societies free from 'spiritual pollution' - as the Chinese government puts it.
At a conference in late last year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) concluded that its member countries should remain on-guard against the "perils"of this "dynamic and boundless medium."
Even so, Asians appear divided as to just how cautious they should be. In liberal Thailand, officials still grumble about the dangers of negative cultural influences but do little to stem the Net's growing popularity. Thailand's National Information Technology Committee says it wants to bring the internet into the nation's schools. By 2001, Thailand hopes to have internet connections in over 1,000 schools. The Philippines has also chosen to leave its cyberspace frontiers open.
In Indonesia, where the Suharto government places stringent controls on newspapers and magazines, the internet seems to have found favour. "The flow of information on the internet cannot be checked, but there is no need for us to be too concerned," commented Harmoko, Indonesia's Information Minister, who allowed the launch of an internet edition of the popular TEMPO magazine, which was banned from the news stands three years ago.
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