Written by Michael Caster, Asia Digital Programme Manager at ARTICLE 19.
This article originally appeared on The Diplomat.
Washington should use the upcoming Special Summit to take a firm stand against rising digital authoritarianism in Southeast Asian nations.
On May 12 and 13, President Biden will host the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Washington DC for the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit. In announcing the Summit in April, the White House reiterated its “commitment to advance an Indo-Pacific that is free and open, secure, connected, and resilient,” a direct reference to the Indo-Pacific Strategy released in February.
The Strategy also holds that the U.S. will “bolster freedom of information and expression,” and advance “common approaches to critical and emerging technologies, the internet, and cyber space,” including support for an “open, interoperable, reliable, and secure internet.”
In the face of rising digital authoritarianism across ASEAN, the summit is a critical opportunity for the U.S. to prioritize support for internet freedom as part of its strategy in the region.
Laws and technologies that allow for censorship and surveillance have proliferated across ASEAN in the past few years. In 2021, Thailand enacted a Notification under the Computer Crimes Act expanding surveillance powers by requiring digital service providers to retain and cooperate with law enforcement regarding network traffic data, and to facilitate user identity verification. Also passed in 2021, Singapore’s Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill empowers the state with overbroad powers to order the removal or blockage of online content, while also targeting the use of encryption and circumvention tools in ways that contravene international norms.
Recently, Vietnam has announced plans for new rules that would supercharge its already robust censorship practices. The vague and overbroad rules would force social media firms to remove “illegal” content within 24 hours, or three hours for livestreams, and to immediately remove any content threatening “national security.” In Myanmar, the post-coup military junta has proposed a Cybersecurity Law that would impose crippling censorship and empower the state with far greater surveillance capabilities, while also criminalizing the use of unregistered circumvention tools like VPNs with up to three years’ imprisonment.
In February 2021, Cambodia enacted a sub-decree to establish a National Internet Gateway, which was meant to come into effect in February this year but has been temporarily put on hold. Nevertheless, a Hun Sun government-controlled single internet access point for the whole country represents an existential threat for Cambodian internet freedom by centralizing all censorship and surveillance infrastructure in a way that resembles the Great Firewall of China.
Information manipulation and the politicized criminalization of so-called “fake news” also poses a serious threat to internet freedom throughout the region. Since 2019, Thailand has operationalized an “anti-fake news” center to target content critical of the government and delegitimize select independent media coverage as “fake news.”
In Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia pro-government accounts regularly target and harass independent voices online, and engage in information operations. Meta has removed some inauthentic Facebook accounts, but considering that Thailand and Vietnam each maintain state-backed cyber armies reported to number into the 10,000s, such efforts at abusive and inauthentic account regulation are unlikely to curtail information manipulation operations. In Myanmar, social media platforms have been instrumental in allowing the spread of incitement to genocide against Rohingya and the incitement and glorification violence against ethnic minorities and civil society.
The problem of computational propaganda is stark in the Philippines, where Rappler CEO Maria Ressa noted in 2018, “many Filipinos’ trust in traditional media has been eroded as disinformation and fake news have polarized our society.” The spread of disinformation and threats to democracy in the Philippines have multiplied, especially in the lead up to this week’s presidential election, as pointed out by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
Internet shutdowns and other network interferences have proliferated across the region from Myanmar to Indonesia. Few countries have weaponized the internet to the same degree as Myanmar, which even before the February 2021 coup was home to the world’s longest running internet shutdown in parts of Rakhine and Chin states. Article 77 of Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law authorizes the authorities to cut off internet access, at odds with international norms. Following the coup, for months Myanmar plunged the country into increasingly severe internet shutdowns to mask state violence and brutality and choke off the population from the world.
Indonesia has also used internet shutdowns and blocked social media during periods of political contestation, especially regarding Papua and West Papua. In response, Indonesian organizations the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AIJ) and Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet) have sued the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology over its use of shutdowns, a case it won in 2020. However, the practice continues.
Authorities in Vietnam have also interfered with internet access for political purposes. In particular, for several months in 2020 Vietnamese authorities throttled Facebook services in the country to force the platform to comply with repressive censorship orders. Thailand has also ordered telecom providers to shut down network service for users in the deep south who failed to register their SIM cards under new facial recognition systems.
Finally, states have engaged in targeted persecution for online activity. In January 2021, a civil servant in Thailand was sentenced to 43-and-a-half years imprisonment under Article 112 of the Penal Code and the Computer Crimes Act over Facebook and YouTube posts concerning the monarchy. In Malaysia, political artist Fahmi Reza has already been charged twice in 2022 under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act over political satire graphics posted on his Facebook page.
Authorities in Vietnam regularly charge independent journalists and other members of civil society with violating Article 117 of the Penal Code for what they post online. According to the human rights group the 88 Project, of Vietnam’s 206 political prisoners, 56 of them are charged under Article 117. This includes Pham Chi Dung, president of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, who was sentenced to fifteen years in prison in January 2021. Also last year, Nguyen Thi Tam, Dinh Thi Thu Thuy, Can Thi Theu, Trinh Ba Tu, and Trinh Ba Phuong were all sentenced to between six and ten years imprisonment for social media posts.
In Myanmar, since January 2022 alone, the military junta has arrested over 200 people on incitement and terrorism charges over social media posts in support of opposition groups.
During the Summit, the U.S. should speak publicly about its commitments to internet freedom and even more forcefully in private meetings. Any support for ASEAN nations should be tied to their commitments to reverse the rising tide of digital authoritarianism. This is a fundamental element of advancing a “free and open, secure, connected, and resilient” Indo-Pacific.
The Biden administration should pursue concrete assurances that the repressive laws and policies assaulting internet freedom in ASEAN are amended or repealed in line with international human rights norms. The administration should ensure that no economic or security cooperation permits the exchange of technologies with use cases that could increase the technical abilities of ASEAN nations to impose censorship or surveillance or network interference. This could mean targeted technology export restrictions to ASEAN governments engaged in digital authoritarianism.
Because confronting digital authoritarianism will also require concrete action from the private sector, the U.S. should use the summit to emphasize to ASEAN leaders that it will support U.S. tech companies who resist repressive regulations. At the same time, the U.S. government should work across agencies to ensure that the tech sector itself also complies with own duties under the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
The U.S. should also acknowledge its own failings in broader digital rights arenas and work at addressing them to ensure it can position a positive counter-model for internet governance moving forward.