Fake news in Southeast Asia: a problem or an excuse?

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Many governments in Southeast Asia claim to be extremely concerned about fake news. Ever since the 2016 US Presidential election, the term has become synonymous with the dangers that the internet poses to democracy.

This may be true, but over the past year, many analysts have raised concerns that the anti-fake news legislation being passed in Southeast Asia is merely an excuse for governments in the region to increase press censorship.

Many countries across Southeast Asia have passed these laws, which emerge in the context of existing concerns about data privacy in the region. Governments in SEA are among the worst offenders when it comes to limiting or actively undermining privacy rights, and as a result, the US human rights watchdog Freedom House in its latest Freedom on the Net report in 2018 listed every Southeast Asian country as not free or partly free.

Fake news and democracy

A quick tour of the region provides ample evidence that these concerns are substantive. Singapore recently passed an anti-fake news bill that provides the government with significant power to police and censors online speech.

Vietnam enacted a similar cybersecurity law back in January, which required that tech firms operating in the country to store their data locally so Hanoi can ask them to delete subversive content.

Cambodia passed legislation in May 2018, ahead of a national election, which gives the government power to investigate and shoot down sites containing what it considers to be fake news. In the West, keeping the bad guys out is usually just a matter of being able to create hack-proof passwords and installing a handful of security applications like firewalls and malware scanners. Residents of these not free countries have come to realise that the bad guys are often the government, and if they want into your website or online life, they get in.

In all of these cases, governments have taken the concept of fake news and applied it in a radically different way to how it is understood in the west. Rather than limiting the ability of external states to spread propaganda ahead of elections the primary concern in the West governments in SEA have been quick to label any anti-government news stories as fake news.

Also read: The world should wish the Singapore fake news law is Fake News

This has not gone unnoticed. Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said that fake news has been inflated to be the 21st-century bogeyman that all people should fear. The excuse of fake news has become the new rationale to censor anything a government does not like, that appears on the internet, said Robertson.

Thailand

An instructive case study in the way that these laws work is provided by the recent actions of the Thai government. Earlier this year, the government in Thailand opened a dedicated centre for combating fake news.

From long before this announcement, pro-democracy activists in the country have claimed that it would (further) limit free speech in the country, which has been under threat since the coup in 2014.

Thai Ministry of Digital Economy and Society claims that such fears are groundless. It says that the new system works via citizens of the country reporting fake news, rather than be a government-directed way to remove content critical of those in power.

However, the approach of the new centre is extremely similar to that seen in several recent laws, each of which has had a detrimental effect on free speech in the country: these include the Cybersecurity Act, the Computer Crime Act, and the long-standing lese-majeste law.

The primary issue with the new centre is not its legality. It is that the legislation that underpins the new system defines fake news in such a broad way as to legitimise the Thai government removing any content that it dislikes.

As a result, Robertson says, Thailands fake news centre will only serve to institute internet censorship based on vague and general definitions made by politicized officers keen to end any criticism of the government.

The risk to free speech

At the broadest level, the problem with these laws is that they threaten to further curtail free speech in a region that already has significant limitations in this area.

This strategy has two major components. One of these is the ability of governments across the region to unilaterally remove content that they do not like. These laws not only serve to shut down legitimate criticism of regimes in SE Asia, but they also create a deep conflict of legal interest for companies operating there.

They directly contradict the requirements of the EUs GDPR legislation, which affect everything in the region from cell phone providers to email services to web hosting companies, and mean that businesses operating in the region are faced with a choice: conform to local regulations, or conform with the GDPR. Both approaches are highly risky.

The second component in the limitation of free speech in SEA is the systems that have been built to gather intelligence on citizens of these countries. Alongside fake news laws, governments across the region are creating ever more draconian legislation and implementing powerful systems to spy on their own citizens.

Also read: Fake news law is good but it shouldnt be used to stifle dissent: Singapores startup community speaks out

As a result, large-scale research conducted by Big Brother Watch shows that over 80 per cent of the respondents across Australia, India, Japan and the Republic of Korea are concerned about online privacy.

In another survey supported by the World Economic Forum, between 40 per cent and 70 per cent of the respondents from several countries (with an average of 58 per cent), value online privacy irrespective of the level of Internet diffusion. The same survey also reveals that 59 per cent of the respondents believe that their privacy is not sufficiently protected when they use the Internet.

This is seen most clearly in relation to data privacy in China, although other governments are equally guilty. Chinas Anti-Terrorism Law, for instance, requires telecoms and Internet service providers to provide decryption and other technical support to authorities that are investigating terrorist activities.

Western governments see this as a thinly-veiled cover story for spying on other countries via mobile devices. In other parts of Asia, the situation is similar. India has begun to implement a Central Monitoring System that can intercept and monitor phone calls and internet traffic in real-time.

The future

Whether the recent fake news laws are going to stand the test of time remains to be seen. They are certainly attracting international criticism, but the governments of the region have shown themselves to be resistant to this. Nevertheless, Robertson hopes that Southeast Asian countries are going to come to their senses before it is too late, and follow the Malaysian model that recognises existing laws are more than adequate to deal with the so-called fake news phenomenon.

In the meantime, however, activists are increasingly seeking to avoid the censorship imposed by their own governments by moving their activities off-shore.

This has included the use of various forms of encryption to hide information from government surveillance systems, hackers, and corporate espionage agents, and a trend for many VPN services like Nord and others to be domiciled offshore, in countries such as Panama or the British Virgin Islands.

Ultimately, the new fake news laws that are springing up across SE Asia should be seen for what they are: attempts to impose ever more draconian online censorship under the cover of a buzzword.

They are the most recent development in a worrying trend in the region, where protections for free speech have been consistently and continually undermined by increasingly authoritarian regimes.

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