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Internet in Indonesia

19 May 2011

I have just finished reading The Internet in Indonesia’s New Democracy, by David T. Hill and Krishna Sen. Having been published in 2005 (and therefore written in 2004), the book is not a reliable source of information about the Internet in Indonesia today. However, it does cover some historical developments that are still of interest.

“Indonesia’s rush to join the information superhighway of the Internet began in earnest in 1996. Two years later, Asia’s oldest authoritarian government, led for over thirty years by General Suharto, collapsed” (p. 1).

The Internet certainly did not cause the fall of Suharto in 1998 — but neither did it cause the fall of Mubarak in Egypt in 2011. However, the authors contend that it’s “impossible to imagine” the events of 1998 in Indonesia “without some reference to the Internet” (p. 11) — and that idea is easy to accept.

After many years of oppressive control of the news media — particularly the print media — the Internet opened a back channel that enabled literate and educated people to get accurate information from outside their nation and to share information with one another.

That’s what happened in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and so on. And back in 1998, it happened in Indonesia.

The government’s control over information had already started to erode — Hill and Sen point out that local radio broadcasts were very difficult to control in a nation as large and sprawling as Indonesia, and satellite television had already opened the gates to programs from abroad (pp. 22, 25).

“The networks of dissent” that led to Suharto’s downfall had begun forming before the Internet became available in Indonesia, but the dissenters recognized the utility of the Internet quite quickly. NGOs were early adopters. PGP was used to encrypt e-mails (p. 39).

A pivotal event took place in 1995, when the LBH (Indonesia’s Legal Aid Institute, a leading NGO advocating human rights) “posted a three-sentence ‘Urgent Action’ calling for protest against the murder of a female labour activist in East Java …” Within hours, fax machines in the President’s office and the offices of a couple of ministries were flooded with protests from around the world (p. 41). This concerned the Marsinah case; Marsinah was the name of the activist who was kidnaped and murdered.

The authors discuss the role of apakabar (formally, INDONESIA-L), a well-known Listserv, and the use of warnet, or Internet cafés. They also note the tension engendered by the Internet in all authoritarian nations: the authoritarian forces want to block global influences — but the economists know that globalization is good for development (p. 49).

Chapter 4: Mapping the Internet in Indonesia (pp. 55–76) details the slow spread of Internet access. As in many developing nations even now in 2011, people in Indonesia did not have the number of ISPs or the transmission speed that people in the developed countries had, and the challenges of linking thousands of islands (where telephone land lines were few even in the 1990s) impeded access.

An interesting point: As more people accessed the Internet through schools and universities, it seems that fewer people (or a lower percentage) accessed it though warnet. Hill and Sen note that freedom and autonomy are not the same in a school-based access system — I had not really thought of this before. At the warnet, users are anonymous — and in fact, it seems they access a lot of pornography (pp. 72-73). When you log in at a school or university, your identity is known and can be tracked later.

Chapter 5: Communication Technology for a New Democracy (pp. 77–97) covers the elections of  June 7, 1999.  The Internet was hardly used at all in campaigning, but it was very, very important in the effort to ensure transparency and to prove to the people that the process was fair and free. People were able to track and trace ballots back to the local polling stations via a database that was accessible to anyone through a website (pp. 82-84).

The chapter also covers “e-government,” which appears to be the same load of nothing that it is in many other places.

Timor Leste: Chapter 6 covers the role of the Internet in the independence struggle of East Timor. With extremely limited Net access on the island of Timor itself, the main effects were the ability of the world to know about and comment on the struggle — and on the massacres carried out by the Indonesian military after the Timorese referendum vote in 1999. Although some of the freedom fighters in the mountains had satellite phones and laptops, there was nothing like blogging reports or Twitter coming out of their camps. There was, however, a very interesting spate of cyber-attacks, including some very serious ones on the servers of Connect-Ireland, which hosted the domain .tp for the Timorese.

Maluku: This chapter acquainted me with some history much less familiar than that of East Timor. Hill and Sen relied heavily on these two texts for their summary information:

While Hill and Sen offered various examples of posts from Yahoo! groups that concerned Maluku, they did not do a formal content analysis of the mailing lists. In short: The mailing lists existed before the violence, before 1999. The traffic and the number of posters increased while things were heated up in Maluku. Then the list traffic died down as things got calmer on the ground. Mostly the lists were were used by people outside Maluku (particularly Maluku people living abroad).

The most interesting part of Chapter 7 for me was on page 123, when journalists were discussed. As the Muslims and Christians of Maluku had separated more and more from one another, the news media and the journalists had also drawn apart — so they had news for Muslims by Muslims, and news for Christians by Christians.

The Maluku Media Center (MMC), est. October 2001, contributed “significantly” to “breaking down sectarian barriers to non-partisan reporting,” in part because it provided a “neutral meeting place” (p. 123).

Summary: This book is for the most part very well researched and valuable for its historical context. It cannot be used to generalize about the Internet in Indonesia after 2004.

License: This review was written by Mindy McAdams and may not be copied or re-used without attribution: “Internet in Indonesia,” copyright © 2011 by Mindy McAdams and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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