Classic Internet Censorship

I want us to consider the implications of this new reality: In three of the four most populous countries in the world, governments have now given themselves the power to order that the internet be wiped of citizens’ posts that the authorities don’t like.

Indonesia — the world’s fourth-most populous country, and a democracy — is in the process of implementing what civil rights organizations say are overly broad regulations to demand removal of online speech that officials consider a disturbance to society or public order. Most major internet companies, including Google, Meta, Netflix, TikTok, Apple and Twitter have effectively agreed to go along with the rules, for now.

Indonesia’s regulations are another sign that strict online controls are no longer confined to autocratic countries like China, Iran, North Korea and Myanmar. They are also increasingly the realm of democracies that want to use the law and the internet to shape citizens’ discussions and beliefs.

In free societies, there has long been a tug of war over free speech and its limits. But one of the enduring questions of the online era is what governments, digital companies and citizens should do now that the internet and social media make it both easier for people to share their truth (or their lies) with the world and more appealing for national leaders to shut it all down.

What is happening in three of the world’s four largest countries — China, India and Indonesia; the U.S. is the 3rd largest — is simpler than that. It fits the classic definition of censorship. Governments are seeking to silence their external critics.

Officials in Indonesia have said that their new regulations are needed to protect people’s privacy, delete online material that promotes child sexual abuse or terrorism, and make the internet a welcoming space to all.

Governments sometimes have legitimate reasons to shape what happens online, such as preventing the spread of dangerous misinformation. But Dhevy Sivaprakasam, Asia Pacific policy counsel for the global digital rights group Access Now, said Indonesia’s rules are a fig leaf used by the government to stifle journalism and citizen protests, with few checks on that power.

The regulations require all sorts of digital companies, including social media sites, digital payment and video game companies and messaging apps to constantly scan for online material that violates the law and pull it down within hours if discovered. Authorities also have the right to request user data, including people’s communications and financial transactions. Companies that fail to comply with the law can be fined or forced to stop operating in the country.

Indonesia’s regulations, which are new and haven’t been applied yet, “raise serious concerns for the rights to freedom of expression, association, information, privacy and security,” Sivaprakasam told me.

Access Now has also called out other sweeping online censorship laws in Asia, including those in Vietnam, Bangladesh and India.

(My colleagues reported today that the Indian government withdrew a proposed bill on data protection that privacy advocates and some lawmakers said would have given authorities excessively broad powers over personal data, while exempting law enforcement agencies and public entities from the law’s provisions.)

It gets more complicated trying to decide what to do about these laws. Companies in technology and other industries tend to say they are required to comply with the laws of the countries in which they operate, but they do push back sometimes, or even pull out of countries such as Russia, arguing that the laws or governments’ interpretations of them violate people’s fundamental freedoms.

Access Now and other rights groups have said that companies should not bow to what they say are violations of international human rights and other norms in Indonesia.

Executives of American internet companies have said privately that the U.S. government should do more to stand up to overly strict government controls over online expression, rather than leave it up to Google, Apple, Meta and Twitter alone. They say American companies should not be put in a position of trying to independently defend citizens of other countries from abuses by their own governments.

There are, of course, much less clear-cut questions of when and whether governments should have a say over what people post. Countries such as Germany and Turkey have state controls over online information, employed in the name of stamping out hateful ideologies or keeping society healthy. Not everyone in those countries agrees that those are reasonable restrictions of the internet, or agrees with how the limits are interpreted or enforced.

The U.S. Supreme Court may soon weigh in on whether the First Amendment permits government authorities to dictate rules of expression on Facebook and other large social media sites, which now make those decisions mostly on their own.

The original, utopian idea of the internet was that it would help tear down national boundaries and give citizens abilities they had never before had to challenge their governments. We saw a version of that, but then governments wanted more control over what happened online. “Governments are very powerful, and they don’t like to be displaced,” Mishi Choudhary, a lawyer who works on the rights of internet users in India, told me last year.

Our challenge, then, is to make room for governments to act in the public interest to shape what happens online when necessary, while calling them out when authorities abuse this right in order to maintain their own power.

Tip of the Week

Are you curious about buying a used computer, phone or another device? It’s great to save money and be gentler on the planet — as long as you don’t buy a lemon. Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist for The New York Times, has his own tale of buying used products the smart way.

Recently my wife wanted a new iPad Pro to create illustrations, and maybe send emails occasionally. I grimaced.

The largest version of the tablet costs $1,100. Add an Apple Pencil for on-screen drawing ($130) and a keyboard ($100 or more), and we would have spent $1,330. Instead, I did some legwork and bought everything used. My price was $720. Here’s how I did it.

I started by searching for used iPad Pro devices on eBay. Models released in 2021 were still pricey — $850 or so. The 2020 models were far less. I ended up buying a 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 256 gigabytes for $600. That’s about half the price of a new model with less data storage.

I was careful. I bought an iPad described as being in “good condition” from a seller whose reviews were 100 percent positive. The seller even included a one-year warranty and a 30-day return policy. To my delight, the iPad arrived days later and looked new.

I couldn’t find a good deal on an Apple Pencil on eBay or Craigslist, but I did on Facebook Marketplace. I found a seller who lived near me with five-star reviews. His profile displayed a photo of him with his girlfriend, and he was very polite in our conversation. I felt comfortable. We met during lunchtime in the parking lot of a taqueria, and I paid him $70 through Venmo.

The last step was buying a keyboard. Apple sells its own models, but I opted for one from Logitech. I found one on Amazon listed as in “like-new” condition, meaning the keyboard had been purchased before and returned with an open box. It was $50, compared with $115 for a new one. When the keyboard arrived, it looked pristine and worked perfectly.

The bottom line: There’s an art to buying used. There’s some risk involved, but you can minimize the odds of being ripped off by seeking out online sellers with high ratings, generous return policies and product warranties. And when it comes to in-person transactions, feel for good vibes — and meet in public. The money saved was worth the effort to me.

Should you buy a refurbished phone? (Consumer Reports)

  • They even compared their military to a losing soccer team: On Chinese social media, many people took the rare step of mocking their government for not taking military action to stop Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. My colleague Li Yuan wrote that the online backlash showed that the nationalism encouraged by the Chinese Communist Party can also be turned against the government.

  • Buyer beware: People searching for weight loss treatments have plenty of options for telehealth companies. Stat News reported that virtual options can be great, but that experts also worry that some sites can be ineffective or churn out prescriptions purely for profit.

  • We have feelings about sounds: Twitter’s app now makes swooshing and alien-like sounds when people refresh their feeds. Input Mag explored why sounds are so important in tech and product designs.

Check out this hungry goat that’s doing good work annihilating invasive plants. (I’ve shared videos of the goat herd in New York’s Riverside Park before, but I can’t get enough of them.)

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