With Singapore, Malaysia, China and others looking to curb internet activism, officials in the Philippines are taking a different approach: they are openly embracing online criticism as a way to curb corruption and to create culpability. Last year, internet activists thwarted proposed laws that would have limited free speech on the internet. Now, President Aquino is cautiously embracing and responding to internet activism. What could this mean for the Philippines and larger Asian region?

Philippines

Corruption in the Philippines

The Philippines has long been plagued by corruption. The Philippines were founded as a democracy, but President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972 to extend his rule beyond the constitutionally limited two terms. Under Marcos, the Philippines saw relatively stable growth and an expansion of the national infrastructure. Yet this progress was marred by violence, political repression, and wide-spread corruption.

Marcos was thrown out of office in 1986 and fled to Hawaii, where he died three years later from health complications. Cronies linked to Marcos received massive government contracts and other benefits. This culture of cronyism has continued on to this day, in spite of promises from national leaders to curb corruption and increase transparency.

Role of internet to fight corruption

As is often the case, progress has been slow, but  already the internet has become a valuable tool for activists trying to fight corruption. President Aquino recently announced plans to abolish pork barrel politics after facing strong criticism through the internet. This marks a change in stance, as previously Aquino had been cautious about reforming the country’s national funding apparatuses.

In the focal point is some $140 million dollars worth of funding allocated to businesses connected to businesswoman Janet Nopales. Initially, the government largely ignored the situation, but outrage online and planned protests forced Aquino to act. An arrest warrant has been issued for Nopales, who is now in hiding. Aquino’s willingness to take on politically connected cronies may mark a turning point in public policy within the country.

Singapore to censor news sites

The active response to internet criticism is in stark contrast to other countries across Asia. Singapore recently announced policies to censor news websites, even for out of country news sites such as Yahoo News. Up to 2,000 people took to the streets to protest the moves, but the government went forward with policy changes anyway. Malaysia has begun to take a tougher stance on internet activists, but so far has not threatened to rewrite laws.

Meanwhile, Vietnam will introduce laws in September that will outlaw bloggers from posting news articles online. Thailand has arrested and jailed several bloggers for posting views deemed to be insulting to the king of Thailand, and has even been monitoring Facebook accounts. China, meanwhile, maintains one of the largest internet censorship apparatuses in the world

Of course, the Philippines’ continued progress in regards to respecting and responding to online criticism is not guaranteed. As critics grow more emboldened, there is a serious risk that the government could backtrack on its efforts. Indeed, the government may even make another attempt to crack down on internet free speech.

For now, however, Aquino is showing fellow Asian leaders, and the larger world, that governments can and should cope with online criticism. As populations grow wealthier and internet usage proliferates, online activism will continue to grow. Already, social media and the internet played a huge role in the Arab Spring by allowing organizers to quickly stage mass protests. Meanwhile, citizens in the United States and elsewhere are becoming increasingly vocal in their defense of online privacy and internet usage. The trend of using the internet as a medium to disperse political thoughts and raise awareness will likely continue, and going forward citizens will likely be increasingly unwilling to sacrifice their online freedom.