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<nettime> Indonesia: The Web as a Weapon (Tedjabayu Basuki)
Geert Lovink on Mon, 22 Mar 1999 18:36:10 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Indonesia: The Web as a Weapon (Tedjabayu Basuki)


     [orig to <n5m3-debates-l {AT} waag.org>. now that the apocalyptic
      naivete of the early internet is settling into a more banal
      utility in the overdeveloped countries, it becomes structur-
      ally necessary to propagate its use throughout the world so
      that no village is left untouched by the 'electrosphere,' as
      the Former Republic of Wired would call it. so maybe we're 
      returning to the 'push' question of a few years ago: whether 
      these communications techniques will primarily act as asym-
      metric channels for disseminating propaganda that serves the
      interests of expropriation or, alternatively, whether the
     'push back' ideal that animated nettime on an east-west axis
      will shatter into countless micro-axes around the world. it
      would be very easy to lapse into cult-of-novelty assumptions
      about repetition of 'tired' liberationist ideologies as vast
      parts of the less developed world begin to grapple with new
      forms of communication. that kind of gesture serves mostly to
      assert a theoretical dominion, which we see played out in
      other spheres, for example, the pious lecturing of the over-
      developed countries about how tragic it will be if 'the east'
      embarks on the historical path of putting a chicken in every 
      pot and a car in every garage in asia. 'pushing back' was and 
      still is a question of listening very closely for what is new 
      and specific, not old and universal. --cheers, tb]
      

Indonesia: The Web as a Weapon
By Tedjabayu Basuki

CAPABLE OF cutting through time and space, the Internet offers a means of
communication not previously dreamed of. It has created important new
possibilities as it shrinks distances and provides an astounding volume
and variety of information to those who have computer access. One result
of these is the acceleration of the development of solidarity networks
among peoples, regions, and countries. In Indonesia, it has even managed
to help topple a strongman who, until his unscheduled resignation in May
1998, had been Asia's longest reigning postwar ruler. To Indonesia's
powers that be, controlling the Internet has become close to being an
obsession.

But there seems to be no controlling the medium, which has thwarted
people who had succeeded in repressing all sorts of free expression for
more than three decades.

Try as it might, the state apparatus seems to be unable to anticipate and
contain the extremely speedy development of the Internet, which in
Indonesia is still free of censorship. Thus, while activists belonging to
the "illegal" faction of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI)
may be on the run from authorities, they are free to convey their
propaganda on the Web, and even insult the head of the armed forces and
the President if they feel like it.

Indeed, there is as yet no match for the speed and capacity of the
Internet to disseminate information and views, making it a medium that is
greatly superior to all others for that purpose. Although Indonesians are
still shackled by repressive regulations and state control such as the
Anti-Subversion Law, a small piece of equipment combined with a telephone
cable has enabled them to speak their minds without much fear of official
retribution. They can travel throughout the country and even beyond its
borders without the state being able hold them down. Many have already
stumbled on a number of simple to use but sophisticated tools such as
Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) that protect Internet users from state
censorship. Further safeguards are available through the anonymity offered
by Hotmail, Yahoo and Iname, among others. Of course, it has been a bonus
that there is a scarcity of people among the security forces and
intelligence service who are Internet savvy.

The Net-ting of Indonesia

The truth is that Indonesian authorities, like their counterparts in other
countries, simply could not have imagined that a piece of ordinary
equipment called the computer would produce something like the Net, and
that this would be too powerful for them to control. After all, when data
communication was first used in Indonesia, it was by Bank Indonesia. This
was in the mid-1970s; even uber-geek god Bill Gates of Microsoft still
walked among mortals then. The Indonesian government itself later
developed inter-computer communications for state universities aimed at
fulfilling administrative needs with respect to curriculum development.

But then the arrival of PC clones and the subsequent proliferation of
pirated computer programs enabled students and other computer buffs to
develop their creativity in the realms of both software and hardware.
This accelerated the Indonesian middle class's ability to absorb new
advances in the computer field and made Indonesia one of the leading
countries with respect to PC usage.

Indosat, a state company that manages satellite communications, soon
introduced a global data communication service, and provided packet
switching in the form of leased line and dial-up services. But these
services did not attract many clients because of their high cost as well
as a slowpoke data transfer speed of just 2,400 bps for a leased line.

Then came Lintasarta, a joint venture company (comprising Indosat and the
state-owned Bank Indonesia) that opened up new access through Internet
networks. Through a joint venture with SprintNet USA, data communications
usersˇthen still limited to big and medium sized businesses that often
used US-based Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as America On Line
and Compuserveˇwere able to reduce their communication costs because they
no longer had to pay for long distance calls and could instead make local
calls.

May 1995 witnessed the emergence of Radnet, the first ISP in Indonesia,
followed several months later by IndoInternet, a joint venture company
between the government-owned company PT Indosat and investors from the
private sector. After that dozens of other ISPs set up shop, primarily in
Jakarta and Bandung. The government's own ambitious project to open
Internet access throughout Indonesia was realized when, in 1996, the
Indonesia Postal Service agency decided to expand its business by opening
ISPs in every provincial capital. It is no exaggeration to say that 1996
was the year cyberspace routes opened up for Indonesian society, or at
least for the middle class, just one year after Time magazine proclaimed
1995 as the "Year of the Internet."

By 1998, ISP subscribers in Indonesia were already some 100,000 in number.
Many of these subscribers belonged to the middle class (a term that is not
really appropriate to use because in Indonesia it refers more to financial
worth), although there were also some members of that small stratum of
society known as the upper class, which includes both business people and
bureaucrats. Students were also among the most avid Netizens by then, as
were non-government organizations (NGOs).

An interesting development has been the emergence of Internet 'shops'
in big cities. These are usually cafes or Telecommunication Centers
that are equipped with computers with Internet access. In university
towns these cafes are extremely popular among students because of the
low costˇaround Rp. 2,000 per hour (prior to the economic slump). 

It is from these sites that many activists and students are able to
receive news about events that are not fully reported in the mainstream
media. Because every cafe also provides a printer for hire, users are able
to obtain hard copies of the material. With a speed that is hard to
estimate, printouts of alternative news are then distributed down to the
grassroots.

Subversion in Cyberspace

It is hard to pinpoint just when it was that the Web began to be
transformed into a weapon of dissent in Indonesia, but it is clear that
Indonesian students lucky enough to study abroad had discovered its many
uses earlier than their compatriots at home. Many of these students
overseas at first began using the Net to conduct academic discussions
through online conferences they created as well as through listservs or
mailing lists. Student networks soon sprang up, such as IndozNet for those
studying in Australia, ISNet for Muslim students and ParokiNet for the
Roman Catholics. But it did not take them long to realize that cyberspace
also afforded them the opportunity to talk about topics considered taboo
back home, such as human rights abuses and the repressive policies of the
Indonesian government.

Then there was also John McDougall, a former staff member at the US
Embassy in Jakarta, who had begun an information company in 1984.
McDougall's firm specialized in research findings and quality articles
from the Indonesian media. While he sold these commercially, McDougall
also disseminated the data he compiled to various newsgroups and Internet
conferences. He encountered such enthusiastic response that in 1990, he
set up a free mailing list that subsequently became known throughout the
world as "Apakabar (How do you do)."

Apakabar offered a wide range of views, from the radical to the moderate,
from pro-democracy activists to intelligence officers masquerading as
Netizens. These state agents were supposed to counter any negative
information about the regime, and they did their job using both polite and
coarse language. But the genuine Apakabar aficionados were almost always
able to spot which ones were bogus Netizens, and argued against the
disinformation to such good effect that most of the latter soon fell
silent. Apparently, only a few of these pro-government militants were able
to stand using such a democratic -- and at times approaching anarchic --
medium.

This mailing list subsequently played a central role in spreading
up-to-date information about Indonesia. It is also likely to have been an
important factor in accelerating Indonesian society's awareness of the
need to re-evaluate its values. Apakabar had become a site for extremely
open and democratic debates on Indonesia, helped no doubt by McDougall's
willingness to allow anonymity to any Apakabar user who requested it. In
the end, the US-based Apakabar's success inspired a number of groups in
Indonesia to spread ideas and democratic ideals through mailing lists, as
this was safer than using the print media that had all sorts of
restrictions.

While all these were going on, Indonesian NGOs were also busy discovering
the Web. Probably the first NGO to obtain access to the Internet was
Wahana Lingkungan Hidup (WALHI), actually a forum for various
environmental groups, that in 1989 got a link-up with an ISP in Europe.
Sadly, a lack of human resources meant that this access was not used to
full effect.

It took some more years before Indonesian advocacy NGOs began tapping the
power of the Net. In 1990, the LBH (Legal Aid Institute) obtained Internet
access and started to post reports about the human rights situation in
Indonesia on Apakabar. But it was not until five years later, when the
group posted an Urgent Action (UA) on Apakabar, that cyberspace was
finally recognized as a real battleground between the pro-democracy
activists and the supporters of the Suharto rule. The UA, consisting of
only three short sentences, was a protest against the murder of a woman
labor activist who had been leading a workers' strike in East Java; the
military was the suspected killer.

In less than six hours after the UA was posted, the fax machines in the
Office of the President, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry
of Defense and Security were jammed with hundreds of sheets of protest
from around the world. This event dramatically changed Marsinah, a young
and unknown village girl from East Java, into a workers' heroine known
worldwide. It also sparked an NGO-instigated online information war
against one of the harshest militaristic regimes in the world.

By that time, though, the Internet was already hosting Websites and
listservs run by Indonesian journalists and academics who were
increasingly chafing under the state's repression of mainstream media.
This intensified after the banning of three leading magazines Tempo, DeTIK
and Editor in June 1994.

Fearing the same would happen to them, the rest of Indonesia's local
publications practically surrendered to the authorities.  But ex-Tempo
staffers and its management decided to go online and developed the "Tempo
Interaktif." This was most probably the first step in the use of the
Internet as a tool of dissent by journalists who felt oppressed by the
Suharto regime.  Student activists downloaded the contents of Tempo
Interaktif to make hard copies, which were then sold on campuses and among
NGOs.

People thirsty for knowledge regarding what was really going on in
Indonesia began flocking to the Web. This rise in interest was
accommodated by the emergence of the likes of SiaR, MateBEAN, MeunaSAH,
MamberaMO, KDPNet and AJINews, which complemented materials offered by
other sites and listservs.

Such online information and news are considered to have been crucial
strengthening public conviction that it was time for the Suharto
government to go. Among the most explosive material that used to be found
only on the Internet was the list of assets of the Suharto and Habibie
families and their cronies, compiled by Dr. George Junus Aditjondro. This
was downloaded and then circulated in photocopied form while Suharto was
still in power. After his resignation, the mass media began to quote
Aditjondro's research. Recently, various publishing houses put it in book
form.

There was also the GoRo-GoRo on the SiarList mailing list. Actually a
collection of political jokes about Suharto and his supporters, GoRo-GoRo
became immensely popular and was widely disseminated. The jokes were
eventually published in book form that was reproduced tens of thousands of
times.

Even today, young journalists frustrated that their reports do not get
published in full in the print media post their works on the Internet.
Some journalists have even formed an online discussion group called "Kuli
Tinta (Slave of Ink)." The SiarList itself remains like a news agency that
publishes political and economic news as well as articles on human rights.

For those without access to a computer, children selling newspapers on the
streets sold hard copies of downloaded Internet news at low prices. The
Internet news sold very well, but the children were unknowingly putting
themselves at risk. In 1996, the police arrested two university lecturers
(in Yogyakarta and Pekalongan) apparently for possessing hard copies of
SiaR news items downloaded from certain mailing list. Recently, police
officers also arrested two children selling photocopies of downloaded
materials.

Efforts to Control and Censor

Other countries in Southeast Asia have since tried to thwart dissension on
the Web by imposing restrictions on Internet access. In Indonesia, the
Suharto government used to hint about similar restrictions through the
Minister of Post and Telecommunications who said regulations were needed
to protect the young generation from the dangers of pornography and
guerrilla politics via the Internet. Senior armed forces officials also
criticized postings that were "divisive" or that "incited" or "endangered
political stability." Fortunately, though, regulations on the Net have yet
to be introduced.

Still, ISP users in Indonesia have reported attempts to censor the flow of
information on the Net. E-mail sometimes fails to reach its destination,
or is delayed for several days. E-mail addresses known to be used by
dissidents are said to be subject to censorship attempts by unknown
individuals within certain providers. In the days leading up to the series
of student demonstrations in 1998, access to ISPs in Jakarta was very
difficult. It may very well be that this was because too many people were
trying to use them at the same time. But many observers believe that the
providers were being forced to sabotage the system.

A number of conglomerates such as Freeport McMoran, for example,
apparently censored postings from certain mailing lists. Every posting
from any of these mailing lists was returned to the provider from which
they were sent with the note "User Name Unknown." A number of sensitive
postings were also discarded with the reason that the address to which
they were sent was not known.

For their part, many Indonesian Netizens have always been wary of the Web,
despite its seeming invulnerability to outside "threats." Almost all
advocacy NGOs in Indonesia, for example, agreed early on that the Net did
not necessarily free them from risk of official retaliation for what they
did in cyberspace. Eventually they concluded that in addition to using
commercial ISPs, they also needed e-mail access that did not have any
direct link to the Internet.

In 1994, the advocacy NGO community developed a restricted e-mail system
called the NusaNet Consortium. Today, there are five towns in Indonesia
that function as NusaNet sub-hosts. NusaNet also plays a major role in
disseminating alternative news from the Internet to the NGO community.
According to its users, the NusaNet e-mail system and the newsgroups
within it are fairly secure because they generally use the PGP encryption
system for inter-NGO communications.

But there will always be hackers. In the Indonesian experience, though,
Net infiltration so far seems to be more concentrated on the issue of East
Timor than anything else. In February 1997, hackers, apparently from
Portugal, infiltrated a Website run by the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign
Affairs and that was regarded as having disseminated lies about East
Timor, a former Portuguese colony that was annexed by Indonesia in 1976.
The hackers not only got in the site, but also managed to change the
appearance of the Web page, altering the greeting "Welcome to the
Department of Foreign Affairs Republic of Indonesia" to read "Welcome to
the Department of Foreign Affairs Fascist Republic of Indonesia."

Prior to this, in late November 1996, the homepage of the BPPT office that
had been singing praises of the technological developments under then
Minister of Research and Technology B.J. Habibie was also penetrated by
Portuguese hackers. The attack, it was said, had been made to mark the
fifth anniversary of the Sta. Cruz tragedy in which a still undetermined
number of unarmed pro-independence demonstrators were shot dead by
Indonesian soldiers. Such hacker attacks were repeated on various official
Indonesian government sites that functioned as propaganda tools, including
the home pages of the armed forces, the police, the Ministry of Defense
and Security, as well as the ruling party Golkar.  In retaliation,
pro-Indonesian government hackers attacked a Website in Portugal that was
known as the "den" of politically conscious computer activists.

The Internet in Indonesia's Future 

For most Indonesian Netizens, though, the Internet obviously goes beyond
East Timor and its myriad problems. It is not far-fetched to say that
while the students in Tiananmen Square fought the Chinese government with
fax machines, Indonesian students, NGOs and journalists marked a new era
by speeding up the downfall of a corrupt regime partly through the might
of the Internet. To be sure, not only were intense discussions about
democracy and human rights held in cyberspace and then disseminated
through photocopies of downloaded materials, much of the militant actions
aimed against Suharto were coordinated on the Net.

Today, the Internet continues to be crucial to Indonesia's future, and is
still regarded as an alternative medium for views and news that would
otherwise remain unheard and unwritten. While Indonesian authorities are
less strict on media these days than they were during the Suharto regime,
there are still reports that go unpublished and vital information that
does not get to the people. The Internet has thus continued as the one
venue in which people can express the otherwise inexpressible and have
access to information denied them in the mainstream media.

But there are indications that the Net may also evolve into a mainstream
medium of sorts, especially now that the cost of producing print media has
risen sharply. Newprint now costs almost Rp. 9,000 ($1) per kilo. There
are also the overhead expenses of editorial offices and other production
needs -- such as film, batteries, electricity, telephone, and printing --
to consider. Not cheap even during pre-crisis days, all of these now run
astronomical tabs.

Although various forms of mass media have emerged recently, observers
see this as merely an element of political euphoria. There is no doubt
that the mainstream print media in Indonesia are under the threat of
bankruptcy. One means of ensuring their continued existence is to
evolve into paperless media and go online. It is highly possible that
Indonesian media organizations may yet find themselves competing in
cyberspace.
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