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Digital Freedom and Privacy Under Attack in Indonesia

Indonesia is slipping back to darker days in its history when restrictions and surveillance were more prevalent.

As technological innovation and the development of information technology become the major factors in shaping life in our world today, the implications and risks that grow along with them become more apparent. Among other problems, is the privacy and the protection of the human rights of users of these technologies.

These revelations were made clearer after the recent heroic acts of some of the most daring whistle-blowers the world has ever seen. I’m talking about Julian Assange (Wikileaks), Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and so on. After they went public, we knew much more about the nature of mass-surveillance conducted by states and state apparatuses alongside corporate actors.

Citizens in Indonesia, as with other Southeast Asian nations, get minimal protection from the state and their seemingly endless harassment. There is a low level of public consciousness in the rights to privacy, but it is a lack of interest in that right which makes it so hard to even start trying to raise awareness through any kind of campaign.

For example, in Indonesia, we have a situation where the Internet was introduced faster than our capability to give it and its related terms (such as “upload” and “download”) localised names. It became such an integral part of our lives before we even understood how it worked and what its consequences were. The sheer number of online activities in a country with the third-largest population in the world made the government realize that they needed to create some rules for this new sphere. This development revealed that despite recently freeing itself from 32 years of military dictatorship, many legacies from its darker days, such as the state surveillance machine, are still very much alive and well.

Across the thousands of islands, each and every government body and apparatus of law has been busy carrying out its own surveillance and upgrading its tools. The military, police, Department of Justice, the Public Prosecutor, Anti-Corruption Special Body, Anti-Drugs and Narcotics Body are just some of the many institutions that are secretly tapping into their citizen activities, many times without any legal warrants whatsoever from the court. I mean, who needs those anyway?

The hottest topic among activists and human rights advocates was the controversial Circular Letter by the Chief of National Police on the handling of hate speech on 8 October 2015. Most critics said that this hands the police a powerful weapon, allowing it to decide what can and cannot be categorized as hate speech, and is absolutely problematic and dangerous. This circular has turned into one of the most heated current debates, and many believe that Indonesia could once again slip into totalitarianism.

It’s even more alarming that this circular comes at a time when the police force is working hard to clean its name and maneuvering around allegations of corruption among several of its members. In one such case, they arrested one activist who recorded and broadcasted a video exposing police bribery.

In another recent development, the government is moving to revise the Electronic Information and Transaction Law (ITE Law) and beginning to draft a Law of Privacy Protection, aimed to be heard in parliament during the National Legislation Program (Prolegnas) in 2016. The ITE Law was previously denounced by Indonesian civil rights activists for denying protection to the rights of netizens and restricted internet freedom. This law allows anyone to report on anyone else about anything, as long as it’s considered “defamatory”. But who decides what is defamatory? Just earlier this year, a woman confiding to a friend on Facebook about her husband’s alleged acts of domestic violence was taken to court and found guilty.

Apparently, the Indonesian government now wants to deprive the citizens of almost all freedom of expression by revising this law to add even tighter restrictions and stronger punishment. The official excuse for such drastic measures was the supposedly negative and chaotic effects of the liberal use of social media and the internet. Rising violations of privacy and statistics of crimes related to internet use are also used as scare tactics to justify a strong state response: a hammer to bend (or break) the liberal use of the internet. And so, the administration is in the process of creating a “Cyber National Body“, tasked with clamping down on what it considers to be negative aspects of the internet, the violation of social media, and scrutinizing every honest expression by every Indonesian citizen.

If all goes according to plan, it could mean a long and difficult road for the civil and digital rights movement in the country to uphold and expand their efforts, as well as build a system for the protection of the public and general user of the internet.

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