On May 12 and 13, the United States welcomed leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to Washington D.C. for a special summit. Prior to the meeting, one expert urged the Biden administration to use the occasion to prioritize internet freedom.
In an opinion piece for The Diplomat, Michael Caster, Asia Digital Program Manager at ARTICLE 19 and a co-founder of Safeguard Defenders, said that laws and technologies that allow for censorship and surveillance have proliferated across ASEAN in the past few years.
Caster pointed to Thailand’s enactment of a Notification under the Computer Crimes Act, Singapore’s Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Bill, and Vietnam’s new but vague rules on social media as examples of the trend.
He also noted that the military junta in Myanmar had proposed a Cybersecurity Law that would give the state greater surveillance powers and criminalize the use of unregistered circumvention tools like VPNs.
In light of these developments, Caster argued that the US should use the upcoming summit to reaffirm its commitment to internet freedom and human rights and encourage ASEAN leaders to do the same.
He said that fake news regulations should be repealed or amended to comply with international standards, and laws that criminalize online expression should be reformed or scrapped altogether.
According to Caster, several governments in the region are using the pretext of combating fake news to muzzle dissent and target independent media. For example, pro-government accounts in Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia have been known to harass independent voices online and engage in information operations.
In more recent events, the Philippines has seen an uptick in online harassment and threats against dissenting voices, especially at the height of the national elections. Social media troll farms have also been discovered to be operating in the country, sponsored by politicians and business people.
Caster warned that if left unchecked, these trends could lead to the rise of digital authoritarianism in ASEAN.
“During the Summit, the US 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,” he said.
On May 14, the US and ASEAN released a joint vision statement, which included the following paragraphs:
“We are committed to improving cybersecurity capabilities, promoting digital literacy and inclusion, and strengthening frameworks and policies that foster efficiency, innovation, communication, safe and equitable use of the internet and economic prosperity while exchanging views and experiences on cyber threats and on regulatory framework and technical standards that protect personal data in light of emerging technologies and their vulnerabilities.”
“We commit to support the development of ASEAN’s digital infrastructure, to promote the development of peaceful, secure, open, interoperable, reliable, inclusive, and resilient Information and Communications Technology (ICT) ecosystems and 5G networks, and explore ways to strengthen cooperation on digital economy, smart, sustainable city development and emerging technologies, including through the US-ASEAN Smart Cities Partnership (USASCP).”