By: Katherine Barnett

The Indonesian Communications and Information Minister Rudiantara has told Internet users they should stop using Virtual Private Networks, which effectively allow users to hide from authorities, claiming they put users’ data at risk.

Rudiantara’s statement, in line with the global trend of increasing censorship to suppress dissent, came in May after the government blocked the use of WhatsApp and Facebook during violent post-election protests that rocked Jakarta, taking eight lives and injuring hundreds.

The violence was exacerbated by the use of bogus news reports.

But the government is walking a fine line. Far from showing concern for user security, Rudiantara’s statement runs the danger that the government wants to stop the use of VPNs, which have become increasingly popular in Indonesia, to stifle dissent.

Social media blocked in election aftermath

The well-organized protests broke out in Jakarta following the presidential election result, in which incumbent President Joko Widodo easily defeated the 72-year-old former General Prabowo Subianto by a 55.5-44.5 percent margin. During the protests, the government enforced the blocking of WhatsApp and Facebook through Internet Service Providers (ISPs), with Facebook Messenger and Instagram also affected. The blocks lasted from May 22 to 25.

Indonesia’s press has remained remarkably free since the fall of the strongman Suharto in 1998. Since that time, what had been a tightly-leashed press has been allowed to flourish and international publications have circulated freely. Social media is another matter. The 2016 campaign against then-Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, was blighted by a huge online movement called the Muslim Cyber Army, which created hundreds of fake and anonymous accounts to accuse the ethnic Chinese Christian official of blasphemy against the Quran. That campaign played a crucial role in Ahok’s defeat and subsequent imprisonment on blasphemy charges largely regarded as trumped up.

While the government is seeking a balancing act when it comes to censorship, its decision to block social media during times of unrest is nothing new. Messaging app Telegram has been blocked since 2017 while WhatsApp has also been threatened for its ‘obscene’ GIF usage, though it remains available for now.

Such blockages are a method that has been adopted by repressive governments globally as a way of preventing the organization of protests as well as the spreading of misinformation and anti-government rhetoric. That was a serious problem as the Jakarta protests developed, with bogus websites promoting virulent Islamic rhetoric.

As with Indonesia, Sri Lanka recently implemented social media blocks following anti-Muslim riots, while the Sudanese government blocked social media in April during protests against President Omar al-Bashir. In China, social media is permanently blocked and accessible only through the use of VPNs, which the authorities are doing their best to close down.

Social media and site-blocks certainly help governments exert more control, but they do nothing for the human rights of their citizens. Such acts of censorship infringe on freedom of speech.

Even citizens currently unaffected by the phenomenon should be concerned, as the more popular government censorship becomes the more likely it is to be adopted by other countries.

Circumventing censorship

Despite the government’s blocking of social media, internet users are still able to access blocked sites via VPNs, which encrypt a user’s network and diverts it via a remote server. This makes their internet activity unreadable and hides their real location from anyone snooping on the network. 

In a May 25 statement Rudiantara issued his declaration that users in the country should uninstall VPNs “to avoid the risk of monitoring, collection and piracy of their personal data.” This statement coincided with the government’s decision to unblock social media.

The claim that VPNs put consumer privacy and security at risk is only accurate when referring to free VPNs, many of which are unreliable. An investigation by Top10VPN uncovered that 86 percent of the top free VPN apps listed in the App Store and Play Store had unacceptable privacy policies. Some 59 percent of these apps were also found to have links to China, a country known for its extensive internet censorship and aggressive clampdowns on VPNs, as Asia Sentinel reported on May 17.

However, a reliable VPN actually gives connections extra security and make data unreadable to anyone spying on your network. VPNs are considered a key security tool, especially when connecting to untrusted networks.

By diverting a user’s internet connection via another country, VPNs also allow users to circumvent domestic censorship laws. This means users can connect to sites that would otherwise be inaccessible due to government blocks.

In heavily censored countries such as China, VPNs are therefore crucial in helping citizens stay connected to the global internet.

VPNs in Indonesia

Rudiantara’s claim that VPNs are vulnerable is not true for the vast majority of them. While free VPNs may put user data at risk, a reliable VPN will encrypt your data and make your private browsing data stay just that: private.

Given Indonesia’s recent social media blocks, it seems likely that Rudiantara’s statement was not made out of concern for user’s internet safety, but to try and stop the use of VPNs to get around government censorship. They have seen a recent spike in popularity in Indonesia. Compared to the average for the rest of May, Top10VPN found a 400 percent increase in searches relating to VPNs during the time of the protests.

It is therefore unsurprising that Rudiantara warned the public off VPNs when they were clearly being used to access government blocked sites.

Future Censorship

Indonesia’s decision to enforce site-blocking highlights the government’s awareness of how social media can facilitate the dissemination of anti-government rhetoric.  Censorship such as this infringes on user’s digital rights and freedoms, limiting the communication and sharing of ideas. It is therefore a direct attack on democracy and should be recognized as such.

Given the country’s post-election site-blocks and the pre-existing ban on Telegram, it is logical to assume that further social media blocks are on the horizon for Indonesia. When that happens (contrary to Rudiantara’s claims), internet users can protect their digital freedoms and access blocked sites by using a trusted provider.

Katherine Barnett (@thekatbarnett) is a researcher at VPN review site Top10VPN.com. She covers global developments in censorship and digital rights.