Freedom of expression was subject to significant restrictions in Asia even before the pandemic, with several governments having enacted laws that stifle online debate. But since COVID-19, restrictions have increased even further due to a rash of so-called ‘emergency measures’ introduced by governments across the region.
Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam have all put new laws into place, and many restrictions are already being applied in a draconian fashion, such as in the Philippines and Bangladesh.
As outlined in a new Chatham House research paper, one inspiration behind this trend is China, home to the world’s most sophisticated and restrictive system of internet control. The Chinese government’s restrictive online regime, which has tightened further under COVID-19, relies on a combination of legal regulations, technical controls, and proactive manipulation of online debates.
This model was an inspiration for Vietnam’s cybersecurity law, as well as Myanmar’s new draft cybersecurity bill, proposed by the Military-run State Administration Council in the wake of the military coup last month, which would give the military there extensive powers to access individuals’ data, restrict, or suspend access to the internet.
This ‘sovereignty and control’ model of internet governance is also gaining impetus through China’s ‘Digital Silk Road’ initiative, under which the Chinese government is exporting both its technology – such as through the establishment of smart cities, the installation of AI, and surveillance technology – and its vision of how the internet should be governed.
In November 2020, Xi Jinping pledged to further deepen cooperation with ASEAN through the Digital Silk Road, and the pandemic has expanded the appeal of Chinese surveillance technologies and data collection platforms to governments both in Asia and beyond. China’s Health Silk Road, which aims to promote global health cooperation, is centered on the Chinese government’s high-tech model under which civic freedoms are sacrificed in the name of public health.
An alternative model
This ‘sovereignty and control’ model is increasingly at odds with the more ‘human-centric’ model of tech governance favoured by many democratic states, Western social media companies, and international institutions, especially the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU).
Although this emerging model also involves regulation, it is regulation which aims to be inclusive, risk-based, and proportionate – balancing the need for protection against online harms with the need to preserve freedom of expression. It is a multi-stakeholder, rights-based approach which brings together not just governments but also representatives of the private sector, civil society, and academia. The EU’s draft Digital Services Act and the UK’s proposals for an Online Safety Bill are both reflective of this approach.
Western social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter have recently introduced new policies which seek to identify and mitigate online harms, such as hate speech and disinformation. Industry bodies such as the Global Network Initiative, independent oversight bodies such as the Oversight Board established by Facebook, and civil society advocacy and initiatives such as the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation are also an important part of the picture.
Admittedly, these various digital governance initiatives are in some cases embryonic, and are by no means a silver bullet solution to the complex problem of online content moderation, which continues to be hotly debated in democratic societies. But they are at least underpinned by the same philosophy – that international human rights law standards must continue to apply even during emergencies such as COVID-19. With the Biden administration in the US prioritizing tech governance in its policy agenda, there is added momentum to the international leadership behind this model.
A clash of ideology
These conflicting philosophies are playing out in debates on technology governance at the UN, with one group of countries led by China and Russia advocating for greater government control of the internet, and many Western democracies emphasizing the need for an open, global internet that protects human rights.
These differing ideologies are also creating tensions between Western social media companies operating in Asia and the various governments in that region which have increased restrictions on online expression. And the gulf between the two appears to be widening.
In 2017, the Thailand government threatened Facebook with legal action unless it agreed to remove content critical of Thailand’s royal family and, in 2020, Facebook announced it had been ‘forced to block’ such material. Also in 2020, the Vietnam government pressured state-owned telecom companies to throttle internet traffic to Facebook, effectively restricting access to the platform, until Facebook agreed to take down content the government deemed to be anti-state.
Platforms refuse to silence legitimate criticism
However, Silicon Valley’s social media companies have also been pushing back. Facebook restricted the accounts of Myanmar’s military on the basis of ‘spreading misinformation’ in the wake of the military’s imposition of an internet shutdown that blocked access to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And Twitter resisted requests by the Indian government to block accounts involved in protests by farmers.
Twitter stated that while it would block any accounts which it felt incited violence, it would not take action on accounts belonging to news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians because it believed that would ‘violate the fundamental right to free expression under the Indian law’. The Indian government responded by fast-tracking stringent new social media regulations heavily criticized by rights groups for increasing government power over content on social media platforms, including online news.
So how can social media companies find avenues for operating in Asia and beyond without being co-opted into the lurch towards digital authoritarianism? There are no easy answers here, but collaboration is key. Cooperation between tech companies and local civil society partners can help companies better understand risks to human rights in the country concerned and how they might be mitigated. And tech companies are more effective in alliance with each other than acting on their own, such as the refusal by Facebook, Google, Telegram, and Twitter to hand over data on protestors to the Hong Kong police.
The fact that in many countries in Asia there are no alternatives to Western social media companies – unlike China, where platforms such as WeChat are part of the government’s internet control apparatus – gives the companies concerned some leverage. In February 2020, Facebook, Google, and Twitter together – through the Asia Internet Coalition – threatened to leave Pakistan in response to the government’s draconian proposals to regulate social media. Along with pressure and lawsuits from civil society, this forced the government into retreat, although the tussle over the new rules, introduced in November, continues.
At a time when illiberalism was already on the rise in Asia (including in democracies – Freedom House has just downgraded India’s status from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’), COVID-19 has made tighter state control of online freedom of expression even more attractive to many governments. As it seems increasingly unlikely that restrictions enacted under the guise of pandemic-related emergency measures will be repealed once the COVID-19 crisis ends, it is even more important that tech companies work with civil society on the ground to minimize the censorship of citizen voices.