Underscoring the challenges of promoting digital rights in Southeast Asia

A protest in the Philippines against digital state surveillance.

A protest in the Philippines against digital state surveillance. Source: Twitter post of #JunkSIMreg Network

DigitalReach, a digital rights organization founded in 2019, has released its latest report detailing the digital rights situation in Southeast Asia. In their overall assessment, they claimed many Southeast Asian governments are playing a part in suppressing the rights of their citizens:

…information disorders have been weaponized for political gain, while oppressive governments have tried to control the internet, particularly through social media, and crackdown on dissidents using digital surveillance as a tactic.

The report covered eight countries in the region: Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. They predominantly focused on the decline of democracy in Myanmar under the military junta, the use of TikTok to spread disinformation during the elections in the Philippines and Malaysia, and the discovery of Pegasus spyware in Thailand.

DigitalReach's report detailed the repressive policies of the junta in Myanmar, which grabbed power during a coup in February 2021. They also highlighted Myanmar's ongoing pro-democracy movement, where citizens continue to push back on the military government, despite the risk to dissidents. The activists insist: “The only solution is to restore democracy to the country and hold the Myanmar military accountable for the crimes they have committed.”

In an email interview with Global Voices, DigitalReach underscored the need to reach out to local civil society groups in Myanmar in order to bolster their work:

Myanmar civil society groups actually need a lot of support in order to proceed with their work on digital rights. Civil society has been weakened due to the political situations in the country. Many civil society activists have had to flee, and some of them decided to cease operations for their own safety. There is need to strategize how the remaining local organizations and activists can work together to re-build/build what is needed, particularly talents and capacity, with safety as an important concern.

Myanmar junta policies

Tactics used by the junta in Myanmar in suppressing digital rights. Source: DigitalReach 2022 report

The report also analyzed how TikTok was used in the recent elections in Malaysia and the Philippines.

…short videos were used to spread information disorders for political advantage and to incite ideology-based threats. This is the first time in Southeast Asia that TikTok has played such an extensive role in elections.

It noted the limitations of fact-checking efforts because “they can only fact-check information but cannot control the spread of the content on the platforms.”

It tackled the additional role of platforms like TikTok in ensuring the safety of their users while adhering to local regulations. “These platforms will find themselves having to choose between following orders to crack down on human rights, and in particular freedom of expression, or to protect it, as the attempts to control them intensify.”

The report also included the Pegasus spyware issue in Thailand and how it affected the work of activists and government critics. Pegasus is Israeli-linked spyware that authoritarian governments around the world purchased and used to track journalists, activists, politicians, and more. The scale of the Pegasus infection was detailed in a 2022 joint investigative report, The Pegasus Project.

In Thailand, the report was based on the investigation of the Citizen Lab, DigitalReach, and iLaw.

DigitalReach explained how human rights groups might counter digital surveillance in an email interview with GV:

The campaign should start with a law that can protect [citizens] from the government's abuse of surveillance technology. Many countries in Southeast Asia have laws that allow the governments to conduct lawful interceptions (for criminal purposes, for example), but there is no law to prevent the abuse where the technology has been abused against ordinary citizens. As we can see, victims of spyware are usually political dissidents or the opposition. There has to be a law and mechanism to safeguard people, particular these groups that can be easily targeted due to their political activism and stances.

Digital security research in SEAsia

Improving digital security research in Southeast Asia. Source: DigitalReach 2022 report

In compiling the report, DigitalReach observed the limited resources available for digital security research in the region. Through email, it offered this proposal on improving research aimed at promoting democracy and pushing back against the impact of digital authoritarianism:

Our vision is that there is a need to have an institution that focuses on technical research in the region to focus on matters that needs technical expertise to dig into the situations. There is no institution like that yet in Southeast Asia where technical expertise is used to explore how technology can affect digital security and, in a broader sense, human rights from a local perspective. There is a need to find talents for that and set it up. There is need to monitor the situations, find out what are exactly the situations, and what can be done to alleviate the risks/stop the threats after you understand them.

In Southeast Asia, where digital authoritarianism is a culture due to authoritarian governments, it is a challenging task to actually persuade them to adopt the findings of the research. It would make more sense if there is a democratic government first. In fact, we look at it the other way around. A research can actually put them under pressure as it exposes truths, while it also alerts those who have potential to be a victim of the digital authoritarianism to protect themselves more.

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