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Indonesian cyberspace expansion: a double-edged sword

Pages 216-234 | Received 06 Dec 2018, Accepted 05 May 2019, Published online: 10 Jun 2019


Indonesia’s gross domestic product (GDP) is growing at a healthy 5.1% per year. A significant portion of new growth in recent years has been generated by cyberspace expansion and the creation of new cyber-based businesses in the e-commerce sector. These businesses have thrived due to the rising number of Indonesians connecting to the internet. As of 2017, Indonesia had approximately 143 million internet users. This figure will further increase as the economy grows. Digital connectivity in Indonesia has created many positive economic opportunities but has also led to problems with cybercrime, cyber-amplified religious intolerance and disinformation. Indonesia’s slow-moving and inadequate legislative environment has resulted in cyber criminals using the archipelago as a haven for their activities. Problems associated with low rates of digital literacy mean that Indonesians citizens are highly vulnerable to pervasive disinformation campaigns. To address these issues, the Indonesian government has announced a limited range of measures aimed at improving digital literacy and combating issues in its cyberspace. Although some of these measures are positive, they include problematic proposals for legislative revisions and an automated ‘content moderation’ system, which, without proper oversight or transparent implementation frameworks, could be used to censor or suppress legitimate political expression.


Indonesia is one of the fastest-growing countries in Asia, with gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 5.1% per year (Asian Development Bank Citation2019; OECD Citation2019). A significant amount of this growth is being stimulated by its e-commerce sector, which has expanded 60–70% annually since 2014 (Moore, Akib, and Sugden Citation2018, 3). Much of this e-commerce growth is enabled by rising internet connectivity amongst Indonesia’s 264 million citizens and the ‘big data’ this produces (World Bank Citation2018). Nevertheless, while rising connectivity creates positive development benefits, the growing cyberspace engagement by Indonesian citizens has not been without significant problems. After the fall of Suharto’s ‘New Order’ regime, Indonesians were able to exercise greater freedom of expression (Lindsey Citation2018b, 75–76). While this was vital in helping to build Indonesia’s young democracy, it meant that religious extremists were also free to express their rhetoric – a factor behind increasing religious intolerance in Indonesia (Lindsey Citation2018b, 76). Social media and the internet have further enabled the expression and projection of such intolerance (Slama Citation2018, 1–2). Digital connectivity has also enabled a proliferation of other negative content such as disinformation, as social media exacerbates the effect of disinformation and can facilitate its use as a political tool to ‘weaponize’ religious intolerance (Paterson Citation2018). The rising number of blasphemy cases in Indonesia is a symptom of increasing religious intolerance, just as much as the increasing use of disinformation for political purposes is a symptom of Indonesia’s increasing digital connectivity (Lindsey Citation2018b, 73). Poor cyber legislation and cyber security awareness in Indonesia only exacerbates these problems further. Reforms are required – but the government’s responses themselves threaten to be problematic. Increasing Islamic conservatism, hyper-nationalism and authoritarian tendencies in Indonesian politics endanger Indonesia’s democratic health and reputation (Hadiz Citation2017a, 261). The allure of tighter control through censorship – which China has shown to be highly effective – is strong, especially within a system that has already engaged in low-level censorship for many years (Tremblay Citation2018, 100). A lack of will or pressure to create tight legal and governance frameworks, to curtail censorship, or to prevent draconian legislative revisions being actively pursued, could result in political censorship and tighter government control of Indonesia’s cyberspace. The existence of algorithmic technology further increases the allure of censorship for countries like Indonesia, because it creates the potential to increase the scope of ‘content moderation’ activities.

In this report I will analyse the effects of cyberspace development in Indonesia over the last two decades – particularly over the last five years. I will analyse changes in Indonesia’s socio-political environment and how this, in turn, is being affected by cyberspace developments. The symptoms of these changes and their effect on Indonesian democracy will also be explored, and how these changes threaten Indonesia’s democratic health. This will be achieved by exploring Indonesia’s economic and cyberspace growth, the social and political problems that arise from this growth, and how increasing religious intolerance and the predatory nature of Indonesian politics is being amplified by cyberspace. I will analyse how these problems threaten Indonesia’s young democracy, as well as how the Indonesian government’s policy responses to these problems are themselves a threat to its democratic health and reputation. For the purpose of this report, ‘cyberspace’ will be defined as a ‘virtual computer world [and] electronic medium used to form a global computer network to facilitate online communication’ (Techopedia Citation2018). Use of the word ‘cyberspace’ will thus refer to any interaction conducted using that global computer network and the internet, such as e-commerce and social media.

Cyberspace growth = economic growth

Indonesia’s 5.1% GDP growth per year makes it one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia (Nehru Citation2016; Asian Development Bank Citation2019). This growth trajectory could mean that Indonesia becomes the fourth largest economy in the world in purchasing power parity terms by 2050 (PwC Citation2017, 12; Nehru Citation2016). A significant amount of recent growth has been generated by new cyber-based businesses in the e-commerce sector, which is reflected by the large investments in Indonesian e-commerce businesses by Chinese tech giants such as Alibaba, Tencent and JD.com (Das et al. Citation2018, 8–9; Moore Citation2017). Tencent and JD.com, for example, are investing heavily in the Indonesian ride-sharing start-up Go-Jek (Sender and Weinland Citation2018). Go-Jek has also attracted investment from Google – the first direct investment by an American tech company in Indonesia (Russell Citation2018). Both Go-Jek and its Singaporean rival Grab are racing to become the biggest consumer technology groups in Southeast Asia by expanding first in Indonesia (Daga and Potkin Citation2018). Reflecting Indonesia’s importance as an emerging e-commerce market, further large e-commerce investments by Chinese companies include Alibaba’s $1.1 billion investment in Tokopedia, Indonesia’s largest online marketplace, and $2 billion acquisition of regional e-commerce leader Lazada Group (Moore Citation2017). It is estimated that Indonesia will constitute 46% of Southeast Asia’s e-commerce in value by 2025 (Moore Citation2017; Das et al. Citation2018, 8–9). As such, e-commerce growth is vital to the Indonesian government, as it represents one of the main ways by which the country could reach its 2025 target of 7% annual GDP growth (Das et al. Citation2018, 8–9; Guild Citation2019). It is estimated that by 2025 e-commerce could increase Indonesia’s GDP by $150 billion – equivalent to 1.2 percentage points of growth each year across the next seven years (Das et al. Citation2018, 8–9). This represents 60% of the required increase for Indonesia to be able to reach its 7% target (Das et al. Citation2018, 8–9).

Much of this e-commerce-assisted economic growth has been enabled by rising digital connectivity in Indonesia. According to The Internet Service Providers Association or Asosiasi Penyelenggara Jasa Internet Indonesia (APJII), the country has approximately 143 million internet users out of a total population of 261 million people (Yuniarni Citation2018). Eighty-five per cent of Indonesians access the internet via a mobile device (Purbo Citation2017, 75). This high level of mobile connectivity has been enabled by access to cheap smartphones (Freedom House Citation2017). In the major urban populations centres, Indonesians also have access to relatively cheap data plans, which has resulted in an explosion in social media use nationally (Yuniar Citation2018; Purbo Citation2017, 75). As a result, Indonesians have developed a voracious appetite for social media, demonstrated by the fact that in 2014 they were ranked the world’s most addicted smartphone users, based on a daily average of 181 min of screen time (Amin Citation2014). As of 2016 Indonesians constituted the world’s fifth largest nationality on Twitter (Kwok Citation2018, 9). With 126 million users as of 2017, the archipelago has also been ranked as the worlds fourth largest Facebook-using population (Kwok Citation2018, 9).

This prolific use of social media has been enabled mostly by high urban connectivity rates. In urban areas, 72% of people have access to the internet, compared to 48% in rural areas (Yuniarni Citation2018). As urban connectivity rates slow due to effective infrastructure development leading to saturation, rural connectivity should increase as digital infrastructure is further developed (Yuniarni Citation2018). Nevertheless, even with an increased opportunity to connect, Indonesia’s rural populace may still be hindered in accessing the same digital opportunities as urban populations, due to their lower levels of digital literacy (Agahari Citation2018; Hadi Citation2018, 17). Some of these opportunities include a financial platform called Amartha, which helps women living in more remote locations to access the banking system. This is important, considering that only 48% of Indonesian women are online, compared with 51% of men (Christie and Cañares Citation2018; Agahari Citation2018). There is also a public reporting tool called LAPOR!, which facilitates communication between government and civil society, promoting accountability and transparency (Agahari Citation2018). A lack of access or digital knowhow precludes many Indonesians from utilising beneficial digital services such as these, which is unfortunate as these platforms can greatly enable increased efficiency and opportunity (Agahari Citation2018). Programs to improve digital literacy do exist but are inadequate, especially considering the ever-increasing problems which exist in Indonesia’s cyberspace (Kurnia and Astuti Citation2017). Low levels of digital literacy mean greater vulnerability to malign influence from misinformation and disinformation, which is increasingly prevalent. Thus, while increased digital connectivity and cyberspace expansion in Indonesia has created good opportunities, resulting in increased benefits for Indonesian citizens, it has also led to problems.

Cyber growing pains

Indonesian cyberspace growth is generating new social issues as well as amplifying existing problems, due to the level of vulnerability in Indonesia’s cyberspace demonstrated by several metrics. Indonesia sits at 73rd out of 139 countries in the World Economic Forum Global Information Technology Report’s ‘Networked Readiness Index 2016’ (Baller, Dutta, and Lanvin Citation2016). Indonesia is also as low as 70th in the Information Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Global Cybersecurity Index 2017 (ITU Citation2017, 55). As far back as 2002, Indonesia was ranked 2nd for crimes that utilise information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure, behind only the Ukraine (Saputra Citation2016, 2). Moreover, Indonesia is consistently one of the world’s largest sources of malicious cyber-attacks, comprising 38% of global hacking-related traffic in 2013 (ABC Citation2013; Millan Citation2013). For a short period of time in the same year, Indonesia surpassed China as the world’s largest source of cyber-attacks (ABC Citation2013; Millan Citation2013).

Indonesia’s cyberspace vulnerability is due partly to low cyber security awareness among its citizens, which contributes to lower utilisation of IT security programs such as virus protection software (Wargadiredja Citation2018; Famojuro Citation2017). Consequently, many computers in Indonesia are easily exploitable, which results in the country playing reluctant host to large numbers of ‘botnets’ (Spamhaus Citation2018). ‘Botnets’ are networks of compromised IT systems infected by malware, and are defined by Norton as ‘a string of connected computers coordinated together to perform a task’ (Norton Citation2018). These computers are then ‘hijacked’, often without the owner’s knowledge, and then can be used (as part of larger networks of infected computers) to perpetrate cyber-crimes. While the situation has improved somewhat since 2013, Indonesia is still ranked seventh globally for botnet hosting (Spamhaus Citation2018).

Indonesia’s cyberspace vulnerability has enabled cyber criminals to thrive (Wargadiredja Citation2018; Famojuro Citation2017). This is not helped by the fact that Indonesia’s cyberspace legislation has been inconsistent and often too slow to be implemented – an aspect which criminals and corrupt officials can exploit (ASPI Citation2017; ELSAM Citation2017). In a country with poor cyber security and inadequate legislation, rapid digital growth has created a cybercrime haven. In May 2018, 103 Chinese nationals were detained for alleged cyber fraud (Erviani Citation2018). These individuals were allegedly using Indonesia as a base from which to target Chinese nationals living in China, complicating the Chinese authorities’ attempts to track them (Erviani Citation2018). This is one example among many: there have been other large-scale arrests of alleged cyber fraud rings in Indonesia including that of 153 Chinese nationals in August 2017 (Agence France-Presse Citation2017).

Cyberspace expansion in Indonesia has likewise led to prolific issues of misinformation and disinformation, again as the result of low rates of digital literacy combined with a sharp increase in digital connectivity (Kwok Citation2017a). Disinformation is defined as ‘false information which is intended to mislead’ (Oxford Dictionary Online Citation2018a, Citationb). While the term ‘misinformation’ relates to inaccurate information that might be unintentionally spread, ‘disinformation’ signifies full intentionality. For this reason, it is typically associated with government propaganda. Indonesians commonly refer to disinformation and misinformation simply as ‘hoaxes’ – a phenomenon with a long history in the country (Souisa Citation2018). Attempts to discredit political opponents using disinformation have been commonplace in Indonesia even before the widespread use of social media, albeit less pervasive and ‘successful’ (Kwok Citation2018, 11). In the 2004 presidential election, Megawati Sukarnoputri faced ‘hoaxes’ alleging that she was Hindu (Kwok Citation2018, 11). Between 1984 and 1998, annually on the 30th September, an Indonesian government-supported film called The Treachery of G30S/PKI was broadcast on television to reinforce the perennial Indonesian paranoia about communism (Souisa Citation2018). The film is a work of disinformation asserting that female Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members tortured, killed and mutilated six military generals during the so-called ‘communist uprising’ of 1965 (Souisa Citation2018). Autopsy evidence has since proven that this story cannot be true, but this has not stopped the film continuing to be shown on commercial television (Souisa Citation2018). Indicative of a broader problem with low digital literacy in Indonesia, this has resulted in a citizenry who are highly vulnerable to the negative effects of disinformation and misinformation.

Cyber-amplified religious intolerance and political expediency

One of the major social issues amplified by cyberspace development in Indonesia is the problem of increasing religious intolerance. This is reflected by an Indonesian government announcement by the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs (Polhukam) stating that religious harmony has decreased, as witnessed by a slide in the country’s religious harmony index from 75.4 in 2016 to 72.2 points in 2017 (Anya Citation2018). Islamic Salafi conservatism has been ascendant in Indonesia since the 1980s, although it was the fall of Indonesia’s second president Suharto and his authoritarian ‘New Order’ regime that further stimulated growing Islamic conservatism (Scott Citation2016; Formichi Citation2014). The reformasi period that followed the end of Suharto’s 32-year rule witnessed the opening up of public discourse (Lindsey Citation2018b, 75–76), meaning that Islamism, previously suppressed, was now free to be expressed (Formichi Citation2014, 6; Lindsey Citation2018b, 75–76). As a result, hardliner Islamists emerged from decades of marginalisation and repression with little appetite for pluralism and tolerance (Lindsey Citation2018b, 76). President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s decision to appoint Ma’ruf Amin, the chairman of Indonesia’s Ulama Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, or MUI), as his 2019 presidential running-mate indicates the growing importance of conservative Islamic credentials in Indonesian politics (Sullivan Citation2018; Human Rights Watch Citation2018). Amin has assisted in drafting a number of fatwas (religious decrees) against religious minorities such as the Ahmadiyah, as well as against LGBTQI+ people (HRW Citation2018; Winowatan Citation2018). His appointment as vice-presidential candidate is indicative of the increasing influence of conservative Islamism in mainstream Indonesian politics (HRW Citation2018; Winowatan Citation2018). Furthermore, there is evidence of growing conservative Islamism within governmental institutions, demonstrated by an Indonesian intelligence (Badan Intelijen Negara) document that lists 1300 senior civil service, university, military and police members as belonging to the hardliner pan-Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) (Davies and Da Costa Citation2017). Another alarming development is that a reported 10–15% of Indonesia’s junior army officers are either members or sympathisers of HTI (Davies and Da Costa Citation2017).

The proliferation of social media has enabled increased and unrestrained expression of strong views, which has resulted in cyberspace-amplified polarisation of public discourse as well as religious intolerance (Slama Citation2018, 1–2). This is causing social and political upheaval and represents a threat both to the rule of law and the health of Indonesian democracy. The polarisation of political debate online has even caused many citizens, particularly young people, to ‘switch off’ (Tapsell Citation2019). The ‘Nurhaldi-aldo golput’ phenomenon sees Indonesians choosing to spend more time joking about – rather than seriously debating – political issues (Tapsell Citation2019). This has the effect of reducing the ideological contestation of real-time political debate (Tapsell Citation2019). Whether social media has created widespread polarisation or only the perception of polarisation, it has given politicians an excuse to avoid serious contestation on either ideological or policy grounds, based on the argument that they do not wish to contribute to further polarisation (Tapsell Citation2019). Because ideological and policy contestation in election campaigns is a key ingredient for a healthy democracy, this development in Indonesia signals a worrying trend (Tapsell Citation2019).

Religious intolerance is similarly amplified via cyberspace. One key example is the behaviour of an organisation known as the ‘Muslim Cyber Army’ (MCA) – an Islamic ‘hacktivist’ group (Juniarto Citation2018; Lamb Citation2018b). A ‘hacktivist’ is defined as ‘a person who gains unauthorised access to computer files or networks in order to further social or political ends’ (Oxford Dictionaries Citation2019). Social media and cyberspace have enabled the MCA to ‘weaponize’ religious intolerance, with the most prominent example of this being its use of ‘doxing’ (Lindsey Citation2018a). ‘Doxing’ is the theft and subsequent publishing of personal details online – in this case, usually those belonging to liberal opponents or people who are accused of insulting Islam (Juniarto Citation2018). The far-right Sunni fundamentalist group, the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front), utilises these personal details to track down its opponents (Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium Citation2018; Juniarto Citation2018). An investigation by the Guardian discovered links between the MCA and opposition political parties, as well as the Indonesian military (Lamb Citation2018b). Increasing digital connectivity and the proliferation of social media have also enabled radical movements to spread their message more directly. Evidence of this is provided by Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), which has reported the existence of 15,000 extremist-run websites (Suherdjoko Citation2016). Many of these radical groups, including the so-called ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS), use cyberspace platforms to radicalise and recruit members (Suherdjoko Citation2016).

Authoritarianism backsliding and suppression of free speech

Indonesia is also witnessing rising authoritarianism and suppression of free speech. This can be measured by the worrying number of cases where the blasphemy article (Article 125a) of the Criminal Code (KUHP), and articles in the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law (2008) (amended by Law No. 19 of 2016), are being used to suppress political opponents (Lindsey Citation2018b, 73; Winowatan Citation2018; Tapsell Citation2019). The political elite, desperate to hold onto power after the end of Suharto’s authoritarian rule in Indonesia, had to compete fiercely with each other, resulting in highly predatory politics (Pepinsky Citation2013, 81; Winters Citation2013, 12; A’yun Citation2018). High levels of predation in Indonesian politics mean that draconian laws like the blasphemy law and the ITE law can be used as tools to dispatch with political opponents (Pepinsky Citation2013, 81; Winters Citation2013, 12; A’yun Citation2018).

Whether as the result of increasing religious intolerance, authoritarianism, or simply blatant political expediency, what is most alarming is that cyberspace tools are being used to manipulate and amplify these issues. The highest-profile case study of this phenomenon is that of ex-Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as Ahok or BTP), who was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy (Mudhoffir Citation2017). In a speech delivered in 2016, Ahok said that it was wrong for politicians to evoke the Koran in telling Muslims they should not vote for non-Muslim candidates (Soeriaatmadja Citation2017; McBeth Citation2016): ‘Ladies and gentlemen […] you’ve been lied to by those using [the Qur’an’s] Surah al-Maidah verse 51’ (Kwok Citation2017a). A video of the speech was then edited to appear as if Ahok was saying that it was the Koran itself that was misleading voters (Fealy Citation2017; Lindsey Citation2018b, 82). This video was then deployed to mobilise mass demonstrations, prompting the government to charge Ahok with blasphemy (Fealy Citation2017; Lindsey Citation2018b, 82). The most alarming aspect of this case is that it showcases how existing issues can be amplified and manipulated through cyberspace. Cyberspace tools not only enabled the creation of the disinformation content in the form of the edited video of Ahok but also enabled its widespread dissemination (Famojuro Citation2017; Fealy Citation2017).

A more recent case is that of the State University of Jakarta academic Dr Robertus Robet, who was arrested for protesting against a proposal to revise a 2004 Law that prevented active Indonesian Military (TNI) officers from serving in ministries and public institutions (Sudaryono Citation2019). If successfully revised, this could represent a return to the dwifungsi (‘dual function’) and thus increased power of the military, last seen under Suharto’s ‘New Order’ regime (Sudaryono Citation2019). As part of his protest, Robet sang a spoof song about the TNI, of which an edited video was shared widely online (Sudaryono Citation2019). The editing process removed the context in which Robet was singing and thus prompted harsh responses from people who felt it was insulting to the TNI (Sudaryono Citation2019). According to the subsequent police warrant, Robet was accused of ‘spreading hatred and hostility’ and ‘offending an authority or legal body’ – charges brought under both the ITE Law and the KUHP (Sudaryono Citation2019). These cases represent a grave threat to the rule of law in Indonesia (Famojuro Citation2017; Fealy Citation2016). If cyberspace tools can be used to co-opt authorities or provide them an excuse to engage in damage-control measures that result in a suspension of the rule of law, the result is highly damaging to Indonesia’s democratic status and reputation (Topsfield Citation2017; Fealy Citation2016).

The slow pace of change

While issues with cybercrime and disinformation have forced the Indonesian government into taking corrective action, developments have been slow and often hampered by budget constraints (Nugraha and Putri Citation2016, 23; Aritonang Citation2017). Events such as the worldwide ‘Wannacry’ malware attack that compromized Dharmais and Harapan Kita Hospitals in Jakarta elevated cyber security to an issue of priority (Reuters Citation2017; Chan Citation2017). As a result, the Indonesian government is now more aware of, and thus focused on, reforming cyber legislation and cyberspace governance structures – although these reform processes are often either too slow, or the revisions contained in the respective legislation are too vague and even draconian (Fachrudin Citation2019a). Emblematic of the slow pace of change, it was not until 2016 that Indonesia reformed its Electronic Information and Transactions Law (ITE) 2008 (Rizal and Yani Citation2016, 70; Fachrudin Citation2019a). This law now represents one of the main legislative frameworks for cyberspace in Indonesia – and also is one of the legislative tools being used to criminalise political expression (Rizal and Yani Citation2016, 70; Fachrudin Citation2019a). Dr Robet’s arrest highlights this issue, as an alarming example of how criminal provisions are being employed in the attempt to silence him (Sudaryono Citation2019). The crux of the problem is that the phrase ‘knowingly and without authority disseminat[ing] information aimed at inflicting hatred’ (derived from Article 28(2) of the ITE Law) is simply too vague and thus can be utilised as a tool to criminalise speech and to silence political opponents (Sudaryono Citation2019; Indonesian Legislative Translations Citation2019).

The related case of Ahmad Dhani, a well-known Indonesian musician and House of Representatives candidate for Prabowo Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) in the 2019 election, further illustrates this issue (Tehusijarana Citation2019). Dhani was found guilty under the ITE law of ‘hate speech’ for Twitter posts made in 2017, where he called Ahok a blasphemer and ‘insulted’ his supporters (Tehusijarana Citation2019): ‘Those who support a religion (sic) blasphemer is a jerk that needs to be spit on his face’ (Hermawan Citation2019). While Dhani’s tweets may have been offensive to Ahok’s supporters, a conviction based upon his comments is highly problematic, as none of the tweets in question mention Ahok’s ethnicity, religion or race – as specifically required under Article 28(2) (Hermawan Citation2019; Indonesian Legislative Translations Citation2019). Articles 27, 28 and 29 are problematic in their own ways, but it is Article 27 that is the most controversial: it has been responsible for 188 out of the 260 ITE law cases, according to the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet) (Tehusijarana Citation2019). The elasticity of these laws advantage whoever is in power, which is why they can be used as political tools to suppress free speech and target political opponents (Tehusijarana Citation2019).

Another of Indonesia’s major legislative weaknesses is the lack of a comprehensive personal data protection law. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (Kominfo) has proposed that Parliament address this issue since 2014, as the lack of such legislation has not been without problems (Innes Citation2018; Nugraha, Sastrosubroto, and Kautsarina Citation2015, 468–469). Around 30 laws exist in Indonesia that relate in some way to personal data, but many overlap, creating confusion, which is taken advantage of by criminals and corrupt officials (ELSAM Citation2017). One pertinent example is the corruption scandal surrounding the e-KTP electronic identity cards, involving high-ranking officials including the speaker of Indonesia People’s Representative Council and Golkar Party chair Setya Novanto (Kahfi Citation2018). The scandal involved the illegal distribution of personal information from the e-KTP (an electronic identity card with microchip) database for financial gain (Hadiz Citation2017a, 263; Suryowati Citation2017). Novanto was jailed for 15 years and ordered to pay a total $7.3 million restitution, but until the legislation is consolidated into a more comprehensive legal framework, which provides clearer guidance and is harder to exploit, Indonesians may continue to have their data abused (ASPI Citation2017; ELSAM Citation2017; ABC Citation2018). In 2015 the government released an Initial Draft Law on data protection for public comment – very similar to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (Innes Citation2018). Since then, large-scale data breaches have stimulated the creation of a new draft law on personal data protection, but the Indonesian legislative pace of change is very slow, and it is unlikely it will be passed for some time (Innes Citation2018; Agahari Citation2018).

Nevertheless, there have been some positive developments in Indonesia’s efforts to address its disinformation and cybercrime issues. Kominfo announced it would hold weekly ‘hoax briefings’ in an attempt to increase digital literacy ahead of the 2019 election (Lamb Citation2018a; Stophoax.id Citation2019). These briefings contain information about recent hoaxes and their corresponding factual information, which is then posted on https://stophoax.id in an effort to help Indonesians engage more critically with the information they consume (Lamb Citation2018a). Another program aimed at fighting the spread of misinformation and disinformation is CekFakta, a fact-checking and verification project launched by twenty-two media companies with the aim of training journalists to combat misinformation and disinformation (Liu Citation2018). This initiative is the result of collaboration between Google News, the Indonesian Cyber Media Association (AMCI), the Indonesian Anti-Slander Society (Mafindo), the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and Internews (Liu Citation2018). Mafindo itself has hundreds of volunteers who monitor the internet in an effort to find and debunk hoaxes before they can gain traction (Barker Citation2019). Volunteers identified a significant increase in online hoaxes in the lead-up to the 2019 election, but their efforts to reduce the impact of hoaxes are made difficult by ‘buzzers’ – cyber trolls who are paid to share and amplify hoaxes using fake social media accounts (Liu Citation2018; Kwok Citation2018, 10). Even the presidential candidates had ‘buzzer’ teams working for them in an effort to shape the online discourse and political message (Potkin Citation2019; Tapsell Citation2019; Kwok Citation2018, 10). Buzzers can have significant influence, demonstrated by Jonru – a Prabowo-supporting buzzer who, prior to his arrest, had 1.5 million Facebook followers and 100,000 Twitter followers (Kwok Citation2018, 10). Pressure from the Indonesian government has seen Facebook beginning to take a more active role in countering the spread of disinformation (Idris Citation2019; Jakarta Post Citation2019). Actions taken by Facebook include deactivating accounts associated with the Saracen group – a cyber-mercenary group that accepts payment for targeting people online, whose administrators could reportedly earn up to $7500 per social media post (Kwok Citation2018, 11; Idris Citation2019). Facebook has not publicly outlined its policy framework for decisions concerning account deactivation, which does not engender transparency and thus is problematic (Idris Citation2019). While some of these initiatives to combat disinformation and cybercrime represent positive measures designed to increase transparency and digital literacy, there are numerous other arbitrary measures being pursued that are not transparent and even threaten the rule of law and, by extension, Indonesia’s democratic reputation (Hermawan Citation2018).

Indonesian government’s draconian ‘solutions’

Indonesia’s main cyber legislation is the Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law (2008) (ASPI Citation2015). This law was revised in 2016 to include provisions on mandatory breach notifications and the ‘right to be forgotten’ (ASPI Citation2017). While these certainly represent positive changes, additional amendments gave officials the power to directly block prohibited electronic information – further reducing oversight of legal frameworks which already lacked transparency, as well as amendments that threaten freedom of speech (Freedom House Citation2017; Renaldi Citation2018). Strong advocacy for revisions to these problematic amendments has been unsuccessful with the major political parties, who have not demonstrated any willingness to revise or restrict the use of this legislation (Fachrudin Citation2019a). The revision itself expanded official powers that had originally been granted in a 2014 decree issued under the ITE law (Freedom House Citation2017). This decree allowed for the blocking of ‘negative content’, further strengthening the legal foundation for such action and thus reducing transparency and oversight (Freedom House Citation2017). Under Article 40 of the amended ITE law, Kominfo can block online information directly, as well as order Internet Service Providers to block content (Freedom House Citation2017). While censorship is mostly utilised to block pornographic websites, there have been certain instances of political content being blocked (Freedom House Citation2017). The Harvard University-based Internet Monitor reported in 2017 that ‘political sites focused on criticism of the government or of Islam’ had been blocked (Freedom House Citation2017). The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and the Malaysian-based Sinar Project found that 161 sites had been blocked including ‘a blog expressing political criticism’ and ‘multiple sites expressing criticism towards Islam’ (Freedom House Citation2017). These represent troubling examples of the censorship of legitimate political expression. If policies that enable this action to continue are not revised, the results will be highly damaging for Indonesia and its democratic reputation.

The reform of Indonesia’s State Code Authority (Lemsaneg) into a new national cyber authority, the Badan Siber dan Sandi Negara (BSSN), after years of setbacks and delays, demonstrates that Indonesia is considering cyber security more seriously (Parameswaran Citation2015; Jegho Citation2018). This reformation in cyber governance began in 2015, when the Indonesian government announced that it would establish a new National Cyber Agency, designed to coordinate Indonesia’s cyber efforts across government (Hogeveen Citation2018). The intention behind the creation of the BSSN was a bureaucratic reorganisation in order to centralise and better coordinate Indonesia’s cyber governance. The BSSN’s main responsibilities involve protecting government institutions from unauthorised access, detecting threats and monitoring online news for false stories, as well as performing other content moderation activities (ASPI Citation2017). The BSSN is the government body tasked with managing Indonesia’s cyberspace as well as content moderation; as such, it is one of the Indonesian governmental departments most concerned with the problem of widespread and pervasive disinformation.

As expected, a number of disinformation campaigns appeared in the lead-up to the 2019 election, including one in January that promulgated the myth that seven containers with millions of pre-marked ballot papers had been shipped from China and were being stored at a port in Jakarta (Lamb Citation2019). The Indonesian Election Commission (KPU) has since labelled this proclamation a hoax (Lamb Citation2019). The 2019 election is not the first to be affected by widespread cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns: the 2014 election witnessed disinformation campaigns targeted particularly against the (then) presidential candidate Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo (Topsfield Citation2017). These campaigns falsely asserted that Jokowi was Chinese, a Christian, and the son of communists (Topsfield Citation2017). Once again, Jokowi was the target of disinformation in the lead-up to the 2019 election, including an assertion that the President had plans to ‘sell’ Java and Sumatra to China, in exchange for writing off Indonesia’s state debt of $21 billion (Barker Citation2019). It remains to be seen whether the presence of new laws, agencies such as the BSSN, and cyber tools, which can be utilised to combat cybercrime and the disinformation threat, will reduce the impact of disinformation. New cyber-tools include the BSSN’s installation of further Honeynet sensors, adding to the 21 already spread across six of Indonesia’s provinces (BSSN Citation2018, Citation2019). Honeynet is a system designed to track and collect information about incoming cyber-attacks. It is the result of collaboration between the BSSN and The Honeynet Project, an international not-for-profit security research organisation that develops open-source security tools (BSSN Citation2018; Honeynet.org Citation2019).

While various problems within Indonesia’s cyberspace represent threats to the Indonesian public, there remains the risk that the Indonesian government has overcorrected. The government claims that its reforms are important for managing the growing cyberthreat from politically-subversive disinformation as well as criminal entities. While this is true, these reforms provoke questions about the extent to which cyberthreats, while legitimate, are being used to enact tighter control over cyberspace at the expense of online freedoms (Wargadiredja Citation2018). Tighter monitoring and control may help to combat the disinformation threat and will offer the government greater agency in its cyberspace – but it could also heavily reduce online freedoms (Hogeveen Citation2018). This could severely damage Indonesia’s democratic reputation and health.

One such tool that has been implemented is a $14 million automated ‘content moderation’ system known as Cyber Drone 9 (Tisnadibrata Citation2018; Davies and Silviana Citation2018; SAFEnet Citation2018). Relating mostly to pornographic or extremist content, it could nevertheless be used to block whatever content the government considers ‘negative’ – in line with Article 40 of the ITE law (Davies and Silviana Citation2018; Freedom House Citation2017). There are already examples of such an occurrence, with Google’s parent company Alphabet being forced to remove 73 LGBT-related apps from its Play Store (Davies and Silviana Citation2018). While manual censorship has occurred for years in Indonesia, automation undoubtedly makes these systems far more effective (Tremblay Citation2018, 100; Tisnadibrata Citation2018). Problematically, there are already instances of political censorship, including the blocking, enacted by the police, of 300 social media accounts and websites, without clarity regarding the procedural framework for those decisions (Freedom House Citation2017). Police cited so-called ‘hate speech’ as a reason to block accounts, yet these allegations included hostile political expression towards the President and the national police chief (Freedom House Citation2017). These are worrying examples of a willingness to engage in political censorship. Combine these examples with the government’s ability to block whatever it considers ‘negative’ alongside the introduction of an automated (and far more effective) ‘content moderation’ system: it becomes clear that this could come to represent a major threat to Indonesia’s democratic health and reputation. The perception alone that the Indonesian government can arbitrarily censor political expression is damaging – let alone any actual use or misuse of this capability.

Further problematic legislative revisions include proposals to the Criminal Code (KUHP). While the KUHP is not equipped to deal with crimes committed in cyberspace and thus is in need of revision, the current draft revision is highly problematic (Setiyawan, Wiwoho, and Rahayu Citation2018, 21). It includes Article 309, which recommends 6 years’ imprisonment for ‘any person who broadcasts fake news or hoaxes resulting in a riot or disturbance’ (Wargadiredja Citation2018). Although amendments to the KUHP are indeed required, the current draft is highly concerning because there exists (so far) no definition or explanation for what constitutes a ‘disturbance’ (Wargadiredja Citation2018; Yuniar Citation2018). This should be a point of concern: this ambiguity opens up the legal system to abuse, where anything that is not approved can be labelled as ‘disturbing’. This could conceivably be used to prosecute and criminalise journalists and political activists – further threatening freedom of expression in Indonesia (Wargadiredja Citation2018).

The effect of broader political trends

Suppression of legitimate political opinion via automated ‘content moderation’ systems, as well as via the introduction of draconian legislation, could be hugely damaging for Indonesian democracy going forward. Taking into consideration broader political trends, a worrying picture emerges. The naming of Ma’ruf Amin – prominent Ulema Council of Indonesia chairman and head of the 45 million-member Nahdlatul Ulama organisation – as President Widodo’s vice-presidential running mate for the 2019 election indicates the growing importance of high-level Islamic credentials in Indonesian politics (Fealy Citation2018; Fachrudin Citation2019b). Alongside the increasing use of the ITE and blasphemy laws for political purposes, this signals a distinctly illiberal drift in Indonesia (Wibawa Citation2018; Lindsey Citation2018b, 75–76; Kwok Citation2017b). Whether this is indicative of a broader national political trend based on widespread voter sentiment, or just the result of Indonesian political expediency, both could still result in political conditions that threaten Indonesia’s democratic reputation (Hadiz Citation2017a, 262–263). This is supported by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit downgrading Indonesia in its Democracy Index 2018–6.38 out of 10 (Aspinall Citation2018). According to The Economist’s metric, Indonesia is on the verge of sinking from the ‘flawed democracies’ category into the ‘hybrid regime’ category (Aspinall Citation2018). This follows downgrading by other democratic indices, such as the ‘Freedom in the World’ survey run by Freedom House (Aspinall Citation2018). Indonesia is not alone: many other counties around the world are also witnessing a rise in hyper-nationalism and sympathy for ‘elected despotism’, leading to widespread democratic retreat (Aspinall Citation2018).

Indonesia’s recent history with authoritarianism means that there exists widespread tolerance and even preference for populist strongmen authoritarian leaders (Kabir and Jahan Citation2011, 512; Heufers Citation2017). Politicians such as Prabowo Subianto, who imply or advocate the rolling back of key democratic reforms, represent a threat to Indonesia’s democratic health (Aspinall Citation2015, 262–263). Moreover, President Widodo has exhibited authoritarian tendencies, even saying that democracy has ‘gone too far’ (Hadiz Citation2017b; Ramadhani and Halim Citation2017). These authoritarian tendencies have expressed themselves in an emergency regulation giving the government the power to disband civil society organisations (Fachrudin Citation2019a; Topsfield and Rompies Citation2017). This regulation was intended to target HTI – it has been argued that this constitutes ‘fighting illiberalism with illiberalism’ (Power Citation2018; Topsfield and Rompies Citation2017). Jokowi has further plans to revise the Criminal Code with a provision that would make it a criminal offence to insult the President (Fachrudin Citation2019a). Then as previously mentioned, there is the revised proposal to the 2004 Law preventing active Indonesian Military (TNI) officers from serving in ministries and public institutions (Sudaryono Citation2019).

This identifiable illiberal drift is partly the result of the lack of appetite for strengthening democratic institutions and norms (Winters Citation2013, 33; Heufers Citation2017; Warburton and Aspinall Citation2017; Hadiz Citation2017a, 262–263). This is clearly evident from the pursual of draconian legal revisions and the introduction of an automated ‘content moderation’ system, which is ill-equipped to prevent ‘content moderation’ from encompassing legitimate political expression (Freedom House Citation2017). The attraction of combating cyberspace issues with arbitrary measures, alongside little enthusiasm for democratic institution-building, represents a disturbing combination. Within a global context, in which China has clearly demonstrated how censorship and tight control of cyberspace can function very effectively, it is clear that the Indonesian political elite has no incentive to deny themselves powerful tools by voluntarily strengthening legal frameworks to their detriment (Denyer Citation2016). This combination of factors strongly indicates how the health of Indonesia’s democracy is at risk from cyberspace-amplified problems, which are being met by democracy-damaging reforms. Within a political environment where the elites are averse to strengthening the democratic institutions, and in which safeguards are needed to comprehensively combat cyberspace-enabled problems, these developments are concerning. While it is unlikely that Indonesia would revert to outright authoritarianism, due to the strength and vested interests of local-level politics, the softening of democratic norms and institutions in the face of increasing illiberal and authoritarian developments threatens the hard-won achievements of the last 20 years since the fall of Suharto’s authoritarian military dictatorship (Mietzner Citation2012, 211, Citation2019; Aspinall Citation2018).


Indonesia possesses a fast-growing economy, stimulated by significant e-commerce growth, which has been enabled to a great extent by its cyberspace expansion. These factors are co-dependent: Indonesia is becoming increasingly reliant on e-commerce to generate the economic growth that will help its government meet GDP targets. Indonesia’s cyberspace expansion and commensurate e-commerce growth have presented many opportunities but have also resulted in negative side-effects. As more Indonesians access cheap smartphone technology and become connected to the internet, challenges around personal data privacy, problems with cybercrime, and issues with disinformation have arisen. In the stunted legislative environment that is Indonesia’s cyberspace, unscrupulous actors have learned how to manipulate cyberspace tools for their own self-interest. These technologies have enabled extremist Islamic groups to access a much larger audience than hitherto possible, and thus to project religious intolerance in a far more pervasive manner. While the Indonesian government have taken positive steps towards combating problems in its cyberspace, it is also trying to introduce new draconian laws and has engaged in political censorship. These measures have been used to suppress free speech and political opponents, and pose a grave threat to Indonesia’s democratic health and reputation. China has demonstrated how censorship can work very effectively, and considering that Indonesia has already been enacting low-level censorship for many years, the allure of tighter control via automated censorship systems is strong. Combine this allure with a distinct lack of will to create stronger and more transparent legislative and governance frameworks, to rule out broadening the ‘content moderation’ regime, or to do away with draconian legislative revisions, and it becomes clear that Indonesia’s democracy is at considerable risk. When all these issues are considered in the shadow of increasing Islamic conservatism and authoritarian tendencies in Indonesian politics, a worrying picture emerges. Even if Indonesia is able to reconcile the increasing conservative Islamism within its democracy and reverse the illiberal and authoritarian slide, its current cyberspace issues, as well as its own responses to those issues, present a tangible threat to its democratic health. For a country without the political will to tackle these problems via a process of strengthening democratic institutions, the allure of censorship and tighter control is almost ineluctable. This does not bode well for the future of legitimate political expression in the archipelago.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes on contributor

Thomas Paterson holds a Master of Strategic Studies from the Australian National University’s (ANU) Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and was an ANU research intern with the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in 2018. Thomas has had work published in the Journal of Cyber Policy, The Jakarta Post, ASPI’s The Strategist, The Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, ANU’s East Asia Forum and Policy Forum, and the Institute for Regional Security’s The Regionalist. Thomas also achieved third place in the Open Division for his co-authored essay 'Undersea disruption: retaining a potent covert capability' in the Australian Chief of Navy essay competition for 2019. Thomas is also an Australian Army reservist with operational experience from deployments to the Solomon Islands on Operation Anode, border protection operations with the Australian Navy as part of Operation Resolute, and most recently with Operation Bushfire Assist 2019/20. Thomas's views are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Army or the Department of Defence.

Correction Statement

This article has been republished with minor changes. These changes do not impact the academic content of the article.


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