As a top Singaporean government official, Teo Chee Hean sees the Internet as a vast new territory with boundless opportunities for his economically supercharged country. He also sees trouble.
While acknowledging that the Internet is essential to the growth of his nation, the acting minister of environment views the new horizon as a foreign land, a place where unsuspecting visitors can contract any number of dangerous illnesses. And in his part of the world, forbidden knowledge can be defined as a disease.
"Singaporeans, or visitors to Singapore, may bring in some of these virulent diseases if we are not careful," said Teo, who is also chairman of the National Information and Technology Committee, during a seminar on technology that was covered by the Singapore press. "Ideas can kill."
Therein lies the paradox facing several Asian nations standing on the threshold of the Information Age. The same technology that is driving much of the economic renaissance sweeping the region is also widening the channels to information that some regimes consider as offensive to cultural sensibilities or threatening to national security.
The consequences of that quandary touch all shores of the Pacific Rim. Companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, facing declining domestic computer sales, are turning increasingly to booming overseas markets in such places as Singapore, China, Malaysia, and Indonesia--all of which have recently expressed grave concerns about much of what can be found online.
The issue has spread to the diplomatic arena as well. Emboldened by their newly found economic strength, these nations have updated a decades-old nationalistic refrain against Western imperialism with a modern dimension: the espousal of "Asian values," under which American-style free speech is denigrated as the cause of moral and societal decay.
"Singapore has spoken publicly about the 'darker veins' of the Internet, things of that nature. There are obviously significant concerns for a multiethnic society such as theirs," said a U.S. government official in Washington. "At the same time, they believe that this is going to be a vital technology for the future, and they want to have access to that technology."
Most of the official discussion about the Internet within these countries has yet to address the more basic question of human rights. Amnesty International and other organizations say the Internet has proven remarkably effective in disseminating information and organizing campaigns to combat alleged governmental abuses worldwide. And, as Lori Fena says, oppressive governments should note that censorship is as bad for business as it is for politics.
"The policies that limit information are also policies that would limit an effective economy," said Fena, the executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group. "As we become a global society, the crux of power and control lies within the information."
The economic opportunities are clear and many. In China, the number of Internet users soared from 3,000 to 40,000 in a five-month period ending in August of last year, according to official government figures, and sales of personal computers reached 1.1 million in 1995 alone.
In recent months, a number of U.S. companies have responded to the demand of the region, including AT&T, Silicon Graphics, Dell Computer, and Unisys, which have all announced multimillion-dollar plans to expand operations in Asia. On Thursday, Net access provider UUNet Technologies said it will open a telecommunications and network center in Taiwan and expects to expand in Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.
"This is clearly is a huge market for effective telecommunications because of the export-oriented economies in a lot of these countries," said Eric Scace, vice president for international development at UUNet's headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. "Whenever you have a country whose economy is fundamentally based on a complex, large-scale web of international dealing, then telecommunications becomes important to the way it competes in the rest of the world."
What remains unclear, however, is what UUNet or any other international service providers would do if a country were to ask them to block undesirable information. As with most things digital, the speed of Internet technology and development is far outpacing corporate strategy or national legislation.
Even countries that share the same basic perspective about the Net are adopting vastly different policies for dealing with online content.
Beijing is going ahead with plans this month to launch the country's first commercial service provider, China Internet, which it calls "the embryo of the future Information Superhighway" that will eventually become the backbone information network for economic development. By controlling China Internet, the state-run news agency Xinhua also intends to block pornography and certain political material from reaching the general population.
Singapore, on the other hand, is apparently softening its position, in part because of the realization that widespread Internet control would be a massive undertaking, even in a relatively small city-state. "Even if the government can develop a screening process," said one Asian diplomatic source who insisted on anonymity, "technology will always catch up with ways to get around it."
This week, a ministry official said the government does not intend to crack down on the Internet, as had been feared when it announced in March that all local operators would be required to license themselves with the Singapore Broadcast Authority and be held responsible for whatever passed over their lines.
U.S. security experts say that blanket Internet restrictions would require far more than simple screening devices such as the SurfWatch software used by parents to block offensive material from children. For one thing, they note, it would be the service provider doing the filtering, not the user.
"You can use firewalls and set up filters any way you want. The hard part is how to administer it. I couldn't even speculate how many people it would take," said Jim Bidzos, president and CEO of RSA Data Security, based in Redwood City, California. "It's like setting up a DMV for the Internet and issuing driver's licenses, but only to the people you trust to use them. Then you have to monitor the way they drive."
Even if such a system were possible, others point out, there could be yet another way around it: the telephone. "What's to prevent you from dialing a long distance server in another country?" asked William Giles, a spokesman for CompuServe, the second largest online service. "If you can't get it here, you can telnet over there."
Besides, as UUNet's Scace put it, "There's only one way you can really keep people from getting access to Internet: take away their computers."
That's an alternative that many developing countries both inside and outside Asia may not be able to afford.