Book Review: Access Contested: Security, Identity and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace

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We have one copy of this excellent book to give away – just scroll down and leave a comment to enter the draw!

Last week Thailand became the first country in the world to endorse Twitter’s new censorship policy. Despite the fact that this policy may not be as draconian as it first appears, the Thai government’s speed in applauding it is telling. It speaks to both the government’s appreciation of the political power of the internet and its understanding of the fact that it cannot control the relationship between its citizens and the internet alone but needs the assistance of social media giants like Twitter. Access Contested: Security, Identity and Resistance in Cyberspace, the third edited volume published by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), deals precisely with this issue of ‘co-constituted’ control of the political impact of the internet. ONI’s brief is to ‘investigate, expose and analyse Internet filtering and surveillance practices in a credible and non-partisan fashion’, and the first two volumes in the series, Access Denied and Access Controlled, analyse government filtering and censorship practices the world over.

This third volume delves into the arguably far more complicated question of how governments control access to the internet without or as well as engaging in wholesale censorship and filtering, and focuses exclusively on Asia. For example, the excellent chapter on internet access in Malaysia examines the failure of three government attempts to assert control over the relatively unfettered Malaysian internet. Legal scholar Vee Vian Thienh gives a sophisticated account of the Malaysian government’s reasons for backing down on this issue when it usually has few qualms about interfering with civil liberties.  The chapter outlines the government’s attempts to implement top-down regulation via legislation and mediated regulation via controls on ISPs. It outlines the role of blogs in Malaysian political discourse, norms of self-regulation in the Malaysian blogosphere, and the state’s recent attempts at more subtle, ‘nonlinear’, third generation controls such as the implementation of state-generated ‘counternarratives’ and an increase in more covert denial of service measures regarding non-government bloggers. Similarly detailed chapters on internet control in Thailand and the Philippines aim at a deep understanding of the interplay between government, commercial operators, and citizens. An excellent and timely chapter on Burma outlines the history of internet control and the role of the Burmese hacker community in both pro and anti-government activity.

In focusing on Asia the book highlights a region of explosive internet growth which has so far mostly avoided the sort of scholarly and political attention lavished on the relationship between the internet and politics in the Middle East. The book does, of course, pay serious attention to internet access and controls in China – a topic covered in detail by numerous other scholars and commentators. However, the China chapter doesn’t simply rehash the same old important but tired arguments about internet access in China inducing political change (or not). Instead, the China chapter, by acclaimed internet scholar Martin Mueller, delves into China’s role in global internet governance and it’s uneasy relationship with the international institutions of that governance. This issue grows ever more pertinent as both Russia and China continue to argue for alternative forms of governance. A chapter on corporate social responsibility and internet filtering in Asia, written by Rebecca McKinnon, a key scholar on Chinese internet practices, also focuses largely but not exclusively on China. It examines the issue from the perspective of limits on and incentives for companies to comply with state practices in China, India and Korea. In doing so it adds insight into the complexity and sometimes chaos of state attempts to regulate the internet in the face of its commercial benefits, especially in China.

The book’s definition of ‘Asia’ is broad, and slightly scattered. Only five of the 10 main chapters focus on country case studies, including China, and two of those are on Malaysia. Indonesia, with the world’s third-largest number of Facebook users, is notably absent. The other five main chapters focus on thematic issues, like the aforementioned corporate  accountability, discussions of new, ‘fourth phase’ cyberspace controls and analyses of different online filtering tools, although these chapters do use Asia-focused examples and data to enhance their arguments.  Importantly, and countering the arguably limited geographic detail of the main chapters, the book includes extensive country profiles of internet filtering and censorship practices in a range of countries, drawing on ONI’s extensive research and fieldwork. These detailed profiles range in focus from Bangladesh to India, Pakistan, Indonesia and South Korea. They include a history of internet access in each country, a list of important regulations with some political context given, and the results of ONI’s unique testing regime, which aims to test the reality rather than the rhetoric of internet filtering in each country. These case studies do nothing to refine the book’s scattered definition of Asia but do much to provide useful, detailed information on states which so often fall under the public and scholarly radar on these issues or fall victim to hyperbole. Detailed case studies like these are a boon to scholars of politics as much as they are to scholars of communication.

The book, or others which seek to build on it, might also benefit from a more sharply tailored regional focus on for example, South-East Asia. Regional initiatives like the proposed ASEAN blogging community are interesting regardless of their actual impact because they indicate the attention leaders and their publics pay to this issue. Indonesia’s championing of this issue suggests regional posturing around ‘data styles’, meaning attitudes to online discourse as indicators of approaches to real-world political debate. In addition, attention to intra-regional politics played out online, as in Thai and Cambodian commentary on the Preah Vihear temple dispute may be of interest regarding the role of the internet, inflammatory or otherwise, in long-standing regional disputes, especially if the issue involve domestic politics arguably intensified by online interaction, as in the Thai case.

In all, though, this book is an invaluable resource for scholars of the region and scholars of political communication in any field. It features  writing by some of the top scholars on internet governance and politics, from leading institutions such as Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. The data-heavy analysis is rich in an understanding of the importance history and broader media ecology play in understanding the impact of the internet on politics in this region and more generally. We have one copy of the book to give away – just leave a comment below before Friday 10 February to go into the draw!

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12 Responses to Book Review: Access Contested: Security, Identity and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace

  1. Paul says:

    In reading anything about the approach Asia takes to cyberspace, an interesting author I always think of is Lt. Timothy Thomas. He has published a trilogy on Chinese information warfare that is quite interesting.

  2. nequila says:

    This looks like a really interesting and groundbreaking book, which should probably be essential reading for those involved in security issues involving Asia.

  3. Lachlan says:

    I would like to see some more analysis in the literature of the unique problem that cyberwar capabilities may pose to accountability and control structures in already highly secretive defense and intelligence organizations. Given the ease of deployment of some of the resources used it is all the more difficult to maintain full control – see the privatization of stuxnet. Counter-proliferation of cyber resources is surely surely to become increasingly difficult. Such resources are not simply sought by criminal organizations and terrorist groups, there is also immense demand for such technology that will come from the private sector (industrial espionage is only going to get worse). It is in the private sphere that the line defining state-to-state conflict is most blurred and therefore most prone to misinterpretation. Just a few thoughts!

    • Sarah Logan says:

      Hi Lachlan, thanks for your comment. I totally agree with you regarding your concerns about the role of the private sector. I’m not up to date on the academic literature on this – if there even is any. In fact, the whole concept of cyber warfare is pretty underanalysed/undertheorised – in my field of International Relations, at least (except for Nye’s references to it, and some pretty hyperbolic analysis in globalisation studies, I haven’t seen much). I think the concept defies understanding in terms of traditional power relations, at least regarding the private sector/counterproliferation concpts you are talking about. Even understanding it as counterproliferation doesn’t neccessarily help, as that concept (for me at least) requires an understanding of ‘weapons’ as something static and countable and attributable, not as processes or pure tech (ie code). If you have any recommendations for reading, let me know!!

  4. Jon Wright says:

    > “Last week Thailand became the first country in the world to endorse Twitter’s new censorship policy.”

    It’s not a big deal. Their ICT Minister called it a “welcome development”. The had already ‘endorsed’ the policy so why all the fuss about what the Thai minister said?

  5. Jon Wright says:

    > “Last week Thailand became the first country in the world to endorse Twitter’s new censorship policy.”

    It’s not a big deal. Their ICT Minister called it a “welcome development”. The EFF had already ‘endorsed’ the policy so why all the fuss about what the Thai minister said?

    • Sarah Logan says:

      You make an important point, Jon – the fact that the EFF responded so quickly is telling. I’m not making the point that Twitter’s policy is restrictive though – As the Tufecki piece I linked to (and your EFF link) show, the policy is probably not anything to get too upset about. As the amount of commentary to the contrary suggest, though, it is certainly not uncontroversial, and its certainly an innovation in terms of the way private companies interact with state concerns. That is why its interesting that the Thai government felt the need to respond to it publicly. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  6. Jon Wright says:

    You say the numbers are secret but you’ve provided some numbers – what’s the source of that data? Also if you’re in Thailand, why not use Herdict to report the more high-value (such as Economist articles and political/human rights) pages blocked? I notice you have a feed on your site but nobody in Thailand is using Herdict. It would be interesting to get some data. (Once people in Thailand start using it then it would be a good idea to restrict your feed to reports from Thailand, rather than global.)

    You might think Thailand is ‘undervalued’ but I don’t see Vietnam mentioned at all in this book (I haven’t read so could someone confirm). They’re blocking whole websites (although usually in rather a soft way) and probably have more people in jail for ‘computer crimes’. I don’t think many will mourn the loss of 776,000 Youtube montages featuring members of the Thai royal family.

  7. Sarah Logan says:

    Sure thing Alexandre – I have had a few emails asking about this so will send out an email in a week or two. Thanks for your comment!

  8. Sarah Logan says:

    Hi CJ,
    Thanks so much for your comment, and for the details you give. Best wishes for FACT’s work.