In this photo illustration, a person looks at a smart phone with a Facebook App logo displayed on the background, on 17 August 2021. (Photo: Olivier Douliery / AFP)

In Southeast Asia, Regulatory Overreach No Silver Bullet to Internet Woes

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In some Southeast Asian countries, governments have effected restrictions to the Internet in the name of curbing disinformation and safeguarding national security. The key question here pertains to who should be ones regulating acceptable behaviour online.

Across Southeast Asia, governments are looking at or have enacted laws to rein in the Internet and social media in the name of curbing disinformation, safeguarding national security and ensuring Internet sovereignty. Truth be told, such efforts belie the real intent of the authorities: they are exploiting growing public clamour for fighting fake news and disinformation to effect state control.

There is a growing trend, whereby governments use different ways to restrict access to the Internet, particularly social media platforms. Vietnam is amending a decree that has served as the oft-cited legal basis for Facebook and YouTube to restrict or take down content at the behest of the authorities. The amended rule envisages maintaining, and in some cases augmenting, the government’s takedown authority in a country where anti-state content has dictated Internet controls.

In Myanmar, the military regime has been floating a new cyber-security law that, among other things, seeks to criminalise the use of virtual private networks — a common workaround for Internet users to circumvent online censorship — to access banned Western social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In Cambodia, the National Internet Gateway is de rigueur for all service providers. It would allow all online traffic — including from abroad — to be controlled and monitored by a government-run portal. It was scheduled to start operating on 16 February but has been temporarily shelved.  

Another trend sees governments applying vaguely defined and sweeping anti-fake news laws. These have all too often been applied beyond their stated purposes to stifle news that is inconvenient to the authorities or to go after government critics.

In Vietnam, ‘toxic content’ has been mostly defined as content that is deemed detrimental to the reputation of the authorities and the ruling Communist Party. Rights groups have decried Malaysia’s fake news law as a smokescreen to squash online dissent. In Thailand, the ban on the dissemination of ‘false messages’ has drawn widespread flak for seeking to shield the authorities from public criticism of their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

To be sure, those regulatory moves come at a time when increased global scrutiny of major Western social media platforms, compounded by the growing concern that Big Tech should not be trusted to self regulate, has rekindled the debate over the role of Southeast Asian governments in regulating the online sphere. That discussion has never been more important for a region where social media has become part and parcel of daily life of millions of people. Southeast Asia is home to 400 million Internet users, accounting for 70 per cent of its population. 4 of the 10 countries that boast the highest number of Facebook users are also in Southeast Asia.

Proponents of the regulatory approach, such as Singapore and the Philippines, point to Germany, a democratic country, to rationalise enacting fake new laws. That justification is however not a panacea, as the devil is in the details. The reason? In countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, broadly worded anti-fake news measures embolden governments to execute implementation according to their will. The German Network Enforcement Act specifically targets hate speech and other extremist messaging, a much more narrowly defined concept. Under the German law, Internet users — and not the authorities — are the source of complaints about hate speech. They provide the major rationale for platforms to erase hate speech.

Empirical evidence presented in a recent report by the U.S. Agency for International Development also sought to challenge conventional thinking by arguing that disinformation is the consequence – not the cause – of democratic backsliding across the Asia-Pacific region.

In that context, the regulatory approach to disinformation, if adopted, needs to first thoroughly address the crucial question: Who gets to decide the boundaries of acceptable content online? Even in authoritarian countries such as Vietnam, that should not be just the prerogative of the authorities. The drafting of such laws should involve other grassroots actors from the very outset in hashing out the most agreeable definition of what constitutes ‘fake news’ or ‘toxic content’.

But the bottom line is, as experts have repeatedly argued, laws should not be considered the silver bullet to stem the flow of misinformation; they might serve well as a last resort. At the very least, they should not be the first priority box to be checked when addressing this global problem.

In reining in the information chaos, bolstering the power of the press, improving news literacy and appointing independent fact-checking organisations are important. These solutions are obvious but have been largely ignored. For instance, in Vietnam, where the government strictly controls the media, the onus of fighting disinformation has been largely on two ministries: Information and Communication and Public Security. This means that the Vietnamese government’s efforts have revolved chiefly around scrubbing online content and accounts flagged by the authorities. 

Empirical evidence presented in a recent report by the U.S. Agency for International Development also sought to challenge conventional thinking by arguing that disinformation is the consequence — not the cause — of democratic backsliding across the Asia-Pacific region. According to the report authors, tackling the scourge of disinformation cannot go without addressing ‘societal rifts brought about by worsening socioeconomic inequality and their political manifestations that have resulted in a democratic rollback’ in the region and elsewhere.

In that spirit, a focus on improving governance transparency, fixing income inequality and creating a media literate public should take precedence over a fixation on laws and regulations. This approach seems to offer some glimmer of hope at a time when the fight against fake news and disinformation is almost tantamount to relentless rounds of whack-a-mole.

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Dien Nguyen An Luong is Visiting Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.