Southeast Asian governments and broadcasters agreed that the Internet needs to be regulated but ended a three-day forum with no firm standards on how to police online material.
Although all the represented nations and broadcast authorities acknowledged the need to maintain "our cherished values, traditions, and cultures," the group stopped short of formulating any international regulations for all of Southeast Asia.
"The forum agreed that the appropriate regulatory framework would depend on the culture and legal system of each particular country," according to a statement released by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the close of the meeting yesterday. ASEAN includes delegates from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Internet analysts and civil libertarians had monitored the meeting closely to see if any unified regional regulations emerged to govern online material. The only other multinational organization to address cross-border Internet law, the European Union, also declined to adopt regulations that cover all of its member nations.
Some Southeast Asian countries have been particularly severe in their approach to Internet regulation, posing internal policy dilemmas as they try to maximize the economic potential of the new medium. Many ASEAN nations are especially interested in high technology to continue their unprecedented economic growth.
"Like all technology, Internet is a two-edged sword," said Mohamad Maidin Packer, Singapore's parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Information and the Arts, in remarks before the ASEAN Forum on Internet. "While the Internet is a powerful medium for communication, commerce, and research, its potential for abuse cannot be overlooked. There are useful information as well as garbage on the Internet. Some are racist, discriminatory, even obscene."
Accordingly, the forum "agreed that regulations and laws were necessary to set up a framework for the Internet to develop and flourish, given the great potential for business, information, and cultural exchange," ASEAN said in its final statement.
The inability to set standards has not stopped individual countries throughout Asia from trying to regulate Internet content. Last week, China quietly banned about 100 Web sites ranging from U.S. newspapers and sexually explicit sites to services offering information on Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Two months ago, Singapore introduced a law called the Class License Scheme, which requires the nation's three Internet service providers, political parties that maintain Web sites, individuals with sites on politics and religion, and online newspapers to register with the government within 14 days of operation.
These groups also must block material deemed objectionable by the government, including depictions of homosexuality, lesbianism, pedophilia, and contents that denigrates race or religion. Failing to comply with the law will result in loss of a license and the imposition of fines.
Most neighboring countries, including the Philippines, also encourage self-regulation and impose few controls on Internet service providers. One delegate, however, pointed out that Internet control will not work because users could dial into ISPs in other countries.