Regulation of the online space is on the rise in South-East Asia – ranging from laws around data localisation, to the geo-blocking of platforms in the name of national security, to anti-fake news laws that campaigners say threaten free speech. Businesses must be prepared for the operational risks and costs this trend brings.

  • Reactionary legislation governing the operations of social media companies and the behaviour of their users has grown more prevalent in the last year – with relatively new cyber security laws in Thailand and Vietnam in particular disrupting the regulatory environment.

  • Global anxieties about the rise of “fake news” have provided governments in the region with grounds to enact regulatory changes that critics argue are draconian, increasing operational costs and presenting reputational challenges.

  • Social media companies operating in South-East Asia face unique difficulties, due to the region’s makeup of various forms of governance, cultural expectations surrounding responsible public discourse, and societal sensitivities arising from multi-ethnoreligious populations.

  • Businesses should maintain awareness of the various political and security environments across the region, in order to minimise disruption caused by legal requirements to report or remove content, periodic government-imposed curbs of certain platforms and entire internet shutdowns.

  • Keeping it real

    In early August, two ethnic Indian Singaporean social media stars released a spoof music video, in which they used strong language to accuse the ethnic Chinese majority and the government of harming minorities. In the city-state, which prides itself on maintaining harmony within its diverse multi-ethnoreligious population, the police were quick to investigate the video for “offensive content that causes ill will between races”. Social media users were advised by authorities not to share it and days later, at the government’s request, three major social media and streaming platforms geo-blocked the video in Singapore. The duo who made the video were later issued with a conditional warning – meaning they could appear in court over the matter unless they remain crime-free for two years.

    The case shows just one way in which South-East Asian administrations are grappling with online regulation, as they tread the fine line between embracing technology and maintaining precedents regarding social harmony and respect for the government. With traditional free speech advocates, such as the US and the EU, diverted by pressing trade and security issues – and against a global backdrop of anxieties about “fake news” – governments in South-East Asia have in the last 12 months introduced strict social media and communication regulations that many have argued are draconian. In many cases, regulations have been imposed by governments that look likely to remain in office for the next few years – suggesting this is a policy trend which is likely to continue. For businesses, this means making sure that staff have a thorough understanding of local laws and expectations regarding the use of social media, as well as the discussion of contentious topics.

    Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill, passed in May, is one example. The law applies to traditional and social media, as well as encrypted end-to-end messaging applications. It allows the government to order companies to remove content deemed to be “false statements” (though not subjective opinions), which are contrary to “the public interest” – itself a term generally understood in relation to politically sensitive topics. In neighbouring Malaysia, the similar Anti-Fake News Act remains in place despite the current administration’s pledge to repeal it. When it was passed by the previous government, critics argued that it was a mechanism to crack down on political dissent. Though the law remains effectively side-lined and the government has shown no intention of using it, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in April noted that “social media can be abused and it can be quite serious” – suggesting that his administration remains concerned with how to tackle the issue.

    The governments of both Singapore and Malaysia have historically had few qualms about commencing legal action against individuals and companies deemed to pose a threat to social harmony (and, therefore, public security) through their public statements. Governments in both countries, as well as others in the region, maintain a careful balance of policies intended to keep the peace within their diverse populations (and, which some argue, are also aimed at reducing opportunities for political dissent). It is something that occupants of South-East Asia understand well as a characteristic of the region; but can easily catch newcomers out. Foreign businesses should therefore invest in educating their leadership about cultural norms and expectations, to prevent their public communications – especially those made through online channels – from upsetting local sensitivities and resulting in legal action, fines, boycotts, and other operational and reputational hazards. Particular attention should be paid to periods of heightened political change, such as in the run-up to elections or surrounding the death of a prominent public figure, when governments are likely to be particularly cautious about the fallout resulting from public uncertainty.

    Keeping it local

    Some governments in the region are opting for yet more wide-reaching regulation. Thailand’s cyber security law, which came into effect in May, allows a government-appointed committee to seize, search, infiltrate and make copies of computers, systems and information without a court order if it identifies a “high-level security threat”. Vietnam’s new cyber security law (effective since January) stipulates not only that social media companies must remove content deemed “offensive” by the communication and/or public security ministries, but also that foreign service providers must maintain an office in Vietnam, store all user data in the country, and give authorities access when requested. The onshoring of data is a trend particular to the Asia Pacific, bringing with it significant operational risks and costs.

    Such broad but vaguely defined legislation is open to interpretation by enforcing officials, and companies should remain conscious of how the new laws develop in the coming months – both in terms of how they are used and enforced, and how the legislation itself is amended over time. Nonetheless, there have been early cases of these laws being enforced, and there are indications that the political winds in the region may be shifting more decisively in this direction. In August, representatives of several technology giants met in Bangkok with telecoms regulators from the ten members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations. The secretary-general of Thailand’s telecoms regulator suggested that online platform providers, such as social media companies and messaging applications, should establish “centres” in every South-East Asian country in order to “co-operate directly” with governments on emerging regulations.

    Whilst this suggestion would be likely to take some years to execute, the trend for greater direct or indirect government monitoring of and intervention in social media creates immediate reputational consequences that are difficult to navigate. Compliance with the law is crucial but can open firms up to criticism from affected users and international rights advocates who accuse them of colluding with state authorities. For example, human rights activists and dissidents in Vietnam in 2018 accused a US social media company of helping authorities suppress dissent. Companies headquartered in countries that may have significantly different standards with regards to free speech should also bear in mind that reputational risk can cut in different ways across borders.

    Keeping you safe?

    Nonetheless, while governments are often accused of being vague about “national security” in the context of regulations, foreign companies should not underestimate the extent to which many South-East Asian countries are contending with real internal security risks. In this context, social media companies are at risk of being scapegoated by governments who focus on the issue of online misinformation and its contribution to violence, including radicalisation.

    In Myanmar, a UN fact-finding mission in September 2018 ruled that social media specifically contributed to the spread of “rampant hate speech” and associated violence against the ethnic Rohingya minority in Rakhine state. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, so-called “call centres” for professional “trolls” (individuals paid to post inflammatory comments or disinformation on social media to influence public opinion) have had a significant presence since 2016. In the two emerging democracies, where social media penetration is high and digital literacy low, the governments are reluctant to regulate the social media space at all, apparently to avoid accusations of political bias. This raises major implications for social media companies that are forced to formulate their own policies to counter hate speech and disinformation.

    In Indonesia, in response to deadly rioting that broke out following the announcement of the 2019 election results, the government resorted to curbing access to social media and instant messaging applications. Tensions ran high between supporters of incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo – an advocate of pluralism – and his opponent, Prabowo Subianto – who campaigned strongly on Muslim rights. Police made arrests related to posts which they say incited violence on the streets, and Indonesia has in the past resorted to blocking a platform which it accused of spreading “radical and terrorist propaganda”. Regulations for service providers are likely to become effective in the coming year. However, in the meantime, the government seems content to persist with crude forms of regulation. In recent weeks, it has implemented temporary internet shutdowns in West Papua and Papua provinces, in an attempt to quell violent demonstrations.

    Such makeshift forms of regulation – the blocking of certain content, applications, or entire internet shutdowns – pose operational risks, not only to social media companies but also to the myriad of small start-ups that rely on them (which are prevalent in the region’s emerging economies). This creates further reputational risks for social media firms: although the government may order a shutdown, citizens may blame the social media company for the inconvenience caused. Having a thorough understanding of the various cultural, operational and security environments across South-East Asia, and maintaining good working relations with relevant ministries of information, communication, or internal security, are key steps companies can take to anticipate and minimise disruption to their users.

    Part of the Big Picture Series, taken from Seerist.

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