Asian States Must Rethink Their Approach to Digital Governance

Too many governments in the region are focusing on control and surveillance instead of citizens’ rights.

Expert comment Published 17 January 2020 3 minute READ

Vasuki Shastry

Former Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

Kashmiri students use the internet at a tourist reception centre in Srinagar, after internet facilities were suspended across the region in December 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

Kashmiri students use the internet at a tourist reception centre in Srinagar, after internet facilities were suspended across the region in December 2019. Photo: Getty Images.

Asia’s political class learnt many lessons on digital governance in 2019, not all of them positive.

The prolonged protests in Hong Kong and India, led by disaffected young citizenry and enabled by social media tools, powerfully demonstrated how things could spiral out of control when the virtual and the real streets come together.

Not surprisingly, governments across the region are taking a step back. Instead of placing the citizen at the heart of digital public policy – with privacy, trust, security and inclusion as drivers of digital governance – Asian governments are focusing instead on surveillance and command and control, which contradicts the spirit of a decentralized Internet and undermines citizen’s rights.

Asia’s digital governance is fragmenting from the global norm and morphing into two platforms with remarkably similar characteristics.

One is a China-driven model aptly called the Great Firewall where surveillance of citizens is an explicit objective and any external material deemed to be subversive is kept out. A complementary model has also emerged more recently, which can best be described as China-light, which seeks to emulate the control aspects of the Great Firewall.

There are of course overlaps between emulators of the China model (this list includes Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos) and those pursuing China-light (Singapore, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia). A common thread running through these two approaches, which differ only in intensity and scope, is the belief that the state is best positioned to police social media and protect the rights of citizens.

This was not how it was supposed to be. A decade ago, Asian political leaders spoke about the virtues of an open internet. Such talk has faded, and a narrowing of Asia’s digital space is taking place against a backdrop of an intensifying trade war between America and China, where regional supply chains run the risk of a decoupling into distinct Sino and American spheres, upending Asia’s durable economic model of the past few decades.

Digital fragmentation in the world’s fastest growing region, with five G20 members, will complicate efforts to build global governance and standards.

Asia’s digital landscape

Asian governments, including democratic ones, have developed an unhealthy obsession with what their citizens are up to on a daily basis. Their solution is round-the-clock monitoring in cities and towns, powered by new surveillance technologies.

Name tagging and facial recognition to track movement of citizens has become pervasive across the region, with China emerging as the preferred source of technology, knowledge, and techniques. While India’s Supreme Court has ruled that privacy is a fundamental right, translating this into concrete citizen’s protections will be difficult with the Modi government eager to emulate China’s approach.

Asian governments are also following China in requiring that their citizen’s data be housed within national borders and are rebelling against the established practice of data offshoring.

In the post-Snowden era and amidst increasing cyber risks, there are rational national security reasons for why governments may want to ring-fence customer data within national boundaries. However, Asian governments are paying little or no attention to how companies are using customer data within national boundaries, with widespread abuses going unchecked.

Global standards are still evolving and there is a strong case here for a uniform regional approach, perhaps via ASEAN or APEC, on standards governing customer privacy, payments, data collection and handling. Big tech companies and platforms operate across much of Asia and a regional approach will curb their current instinct of conducting regulatory arbitrage.

There is a genuine problem in Asia, as elsewhere in the world, with the proliferation of fake news and extremism. But instead of addressing the source of this problem, governments are clamping down by generously expanding the definition of fake news (Singapore) or by shutting down the internet altogether (India, Sri Lanka, and China being serial offenders).

As disseminators of news of all stripes, including the fake variant, the big tech firms have a primary responsibility in policing their platforms. However, the regulatory capacity of many Asian governments to monitor this is weak and in crisis situations, governments prefer to shut the pipes altogether.

Digitalization of course is not all about surveillance and holds the promise of driving inclusion. There is considerable hype within Asia on the promise of fintech as an enabler of this inclusion.

Hong Kong and Singapore are licensing new digital banks, India’s UPI (unified payments interface) is reducing friction in domestic payments and China’s BAT companies (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) are disrupting traditional commerce and payments, and seeking to expand in the region.

However, there is an elite focus in many of these initiatives, with the target market being the region’s rising middle class rather than those at the bottom of the income ladder. Making fintech work for all will require micro-initiatives with the support of NGOs, local governments and small enterprises, with the objective of digitalizing microfinance.

Here developing Asia will again benefit from learning from each other and in building regional approaches. India’s Aadhar for example, with appropriate security safeguards, is a model for Asia in terms of building digital identity.

Given differing regional and national objectives, it is difficult to imagine a global accord for digital governance any time soon. However, by signing on to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP, the successor to the TPP), Asia has consistently demonstrated its leadership in trade and regional governance.

This is why the region needs to come together to ensure that the promise and potential of digitalization flows evenly and equitably to the region, with the region’s 3.8 billion citizens at the heart, rather than at the margins of sensible public policy.