JAKARTA, Indonesia – Displeased that a statue of a 10-year-old Barack Obama was installed in a park here, Indonesians took their protest not to this capital’s most famous traffic circle but to Facebook. More than 56,000 online protesters later, city officials gave in to arguments that the park should be reserved to honor an Indonesian.
This example of high-tech grass-roots organizing was the direct result of the explosion of social networking in Indonesia. But the boom is prompting a fierce debate over the limits of free expression in a newly democratic Indonesia, with the government trying to regulate content on the Internet and a recently emboldened news media pushing back.
Proponents of greater freedom view social networking as a vital tool to further democratize this country’s often corrupt political system. Skeptics, especially among politicians and religious leaders, worry about mob rule and the loss of traditional values.
In its latest move, the government recently proposed a bill that would require Internet service providers to filter online content but was forced to shelve it after vociferous protest online and in the mainstream media.
Thanks to relatively cheap cellphones that offer Internet access, Facebook, Twitter and local social networking media have rapidly spread from cities to villages throughout Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia and the Philippines. In a little over a year, the number of Indonesian Facebook users has skyrocketed to more than 21 million from fewer than a million – the world’s third largest number of Facebook users.
With tens of millions of people now instantly connected, social networking has quickly become a potent, though sometimes unpredictable, political force.
Protests on Facebook and other sites successfully backed leaders of this country’s main anticorruption agency who, in a long-running feud against the national police and the attorney general’s office, had apparently been set up and arrested on false charges. The online anger prompted President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to intercede; the police and the attorney general’s office, considered among the country’s most corrupt institutions, dropped the case and released the officials in November.
In another cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre, online support was critical in freeing a 32-year-old mother who was jailed after complaining about the poor service at a suburban Jakarta hospital. Prosecutors charged her under a new law governing electronic information and transactions because she had sent an e-mail message to friends detailing her complaints. A court eventually found her not guilty in December.
Tifatul Sembiring, the minister of communication and information technology, said the government would reintroduce the bill to regulate online content after a “cooling down” period.
“We want to limit the distribution of negative content like pornography, gambling, violence, blasphemy,” Mr. Tifatul said, adding that online content should be regulated in such a way as to preserve “our values, also our culture and also our norms.”
Ramadhan Pohan, a member of Parliament and a former newspaper reporter, said those online movements had deeply unsettled politicians, bureaucrats and even hospital administrators unused to such direct – and successful – challenges to their authority.
“The problem is that many officials in government are paranoid about this new online content,” Mr. Pohan said. “They are old-style politicians and bureaucrats who, if you ask them, don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account. They don’t realize that in terms of democracy and freedom of expression, we’ve reached a kind of point of no return.”
In Parliament, Mr. Pohan said that he and other advocates of unregulated online media “are still in the minority.”
According to data from Facebook, Indonesia trails only the United States, with 116 million users, and Britain, with 24 million. What is more, Indonesia has the largest number of Facebook and Twitter users in Asia, according to companies like the Toronto-based Sysomos, that analyze social networking traffic.
The recent availability of smart phones that cost less than $100 and offer access to social networking sites set off last year’s explosion, said Nukman Luthfie, 45, the chief executive of Virtual Consulting, an online marketing company here.
Indonesia’s news media, which was tightly controlled until the fall of President Suharto in the late 1990s, has reacted strongly against any perceived threats against the freedom of expression. In addition to the proposed bill on online content and the new law on electronic information, the news media and human rights organizations point to other recent efforts to rein in freedom of expression. A so-called antipornography law, which was used recently to sentence four women to 75 days in jail for erotic dancing, could also stifle freedom of expression, critics say.
They add that the authorities could use these broad laws to suppress the freedom of the press, particularly online. Violations of the new laws carry heavier punishment compared with equivalent infractions committed offline. For example, a conviction for defamation online could lead to a maximum of six years in prison under the new electronic information law, while the punishment for defamation in the offline media is limited to 14 months under the criminal code.
“People in power are afraid of online media and social networking,” said Megi Margiyono, an official at the Alliance of Independent Journalists. “That’s why penalties for online media are much harsher than those for print media.”
A prominent blogger, Enda Nasution, also said the laws could smother Indonesia’s flourishing blogosphere. When Mr. Nasution, 34, began blogging early in the past decade, he said he could count the country’s bloggers on two hands. Today, according to Virtual Consulting, there are more than one million Indonesian bloggers.
In Singapore, Malaysia and other countries in the region with controlled news media, blogs often tend to be sites for information that cannot be reported in the mainstream media, Mr. Nasution said. In Indonesia, because the news media are free, “bloggers also act as watchdogs or commentators,” he added.
The recent online movements, he said, are a watershed in the evolving role of social media here.
“We don’t know where this is going to lead us,” he said, adding that supporters of regulations “are standing in the way of an online tsunami.”
“You can’t stop it,” he said. “It’s not only about technology. It’s about Indonesia redefining its values.”
But such talk unsettles many in what remains a culturally conservative society.
The information minister, Mr. Tifatul, a former chairman of the Prosperous Justice Party, Indonesia’s largest Islamist party, and a member of President Yudhoyono’s coalition government, said Indonesia had to find its own way of dealing with social media.
Mr. Tifatul uses Twitter to communicate with Indonesians almost every day, but harbors misgivings about an American-style, unfettered access to the Internet. At the same time, he emphatically rejects the model of China, which routinely blocks sites like Facebook and Twitter.
“I think we are between China and the United States,” he said. “Yes, we are free. But with freedom comes responsibility.”