There is a dark side to all this progress.
While the internet appears to be geographically democratic, in reality it is a new layer of infrastructure that follows a hierarchy of global cities. Despite Asia’s lead in the digital landscape, good internet connection is not evenly distributed on the continent and it remains largely an urban phenomenon. In East and North East Asia, fixed broadband access can get as high as 74 percent, yet some places in Asia are at less than 10 percent. The internet industry in Asia is also largely dominated by companies from a few countries, namely China, Japan, India, and South Korea. That said, companies from other parts of Asia, like Grab (Malaysia), Go-Jek (Indonesia), Souq (UAE), and Careem (UAE), are quickly catching up.
Landlocked countries are also at a disadvantage when it comes to internet connectivity, and rely on neighbouring countries or satellite technology (which is very expensive). For instance, Laos has connectivity with all its neighbours—which is rare for a landlocked country—through two initiatives, the China-Southeast Asia Cable and the GMS Information Highway Project. Despite that, the country still went ahead and launched its first satellite in 2015 to achieve sovereign connectivity. In some instances, the unequal internet infrastructure creates an internet divide and arguably perpetuates inequality, as seen in Indonesia between urban vs. rural, and remote island vs. mainland island areas.
While China and India have the highest number of internet users, their internet connections are not among the best in the world. China’s internet traffic has to go through three main gateways—Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. Often touted as the ‘Great Firewall of China’, this is done intentionally for a strict screening and filtering of content, but it slows down traffic significantly. India’s internet speed in 2016 was only at 2.8 Mbps, nearly 13 times slower than South Korea.
Beyond numbers, the internet boom in Asia has seen unexpected outcomes. Asia—more so than any other continent—deals with issues like pollution, health, corruption, and social injustice—all of which are common in places with rapid economic growth and social development. The rise of giant social applications like WeChat and WhatsApp have created room for civic and political engagement, as individuals are now able to organise themselves and disseminate information privately for action. It has allowed the growth of whole communities. In many ways, mobile media has amplified democracy, with the best examples in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution in 2014 which was organised entirely on the web, and the 2012 Arab Spring that started on Facebook. In some instances, the internet can be dangerous, like in Myanmar where Facebook has been used to spread hate speech and incite violence against the Rohingya.