'Draconian' moves to control internet heighten surveillance fears in Asia

by Rina Chandran | @rinachandran | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 30 July 2021 09:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PICTURE: A man wearing a face mask walks past surveillance cameras following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Shanghai, China January 14, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song

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Human rights violations in the region have moved into the digital space, with a series of laws and proposed regulations to increase surveillance, critics say

By Rina Chandran

BANGKOK, July 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From Cambodia to India and the Philippines, countries in Asia have introduced a slew of internet and data use legislation in recent months, with human rights group warning the measures raise the risk of mass surveillance and free speech violations.

More than six nations have launched contact tracing systems during the pandemic - mostly without adequately safeguarding data privacy and security, campaigners say, and there have been numerous internet shutdowns and content blocks on social media.

Some of the stoppages appeared to be aimed at stifling criticism over government handling of COVID-19.

"Human rights violations in the region have moved into the digital space," said Sutawan Chanprasert, founder of DigitalReach, a digital rights organisation in Bangkok.

"The trend of governments adopting laws to increase surveillance and curtail digital freedom will likely continue, threatening freedom of expression and information, threatening privacy, and putting digital security at risk," she said.

Here are some of the regulations and draft laws that have been introduced:

THAI DECREE ON 'FALSE' NEWS

Thailand on Friday banned the dissemination of "false messages" and news that cause panic, misunderstanding or confusion "affecting state security, abusing the rights of others, and order or good morality of the people".

The emergency decree empowers the nation's NBTC broadcasting and telecoms regulator to order service providers to block internet access to individual IP addresses if they are deemed to disseminate false news, and to inform the police.

Thailand's government has faced public criticism over its handling of the pandemic, amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

Six media associations said in a statement the government decree showed "an intent to crack down on the freedom of expression enjoyed by the media and the public".

INDIA SOCIAL MEDIA REGULATIONS

India announced new rules in February to regulate content on social media, making social platform Facebook, messaging service WhatsApp and others more accountable to legal requests for swift removal of posts and sharing details on the originators of messages.

The rules - part of an effort by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nationalist government to tighten controls on Big Tech - come after Twitter recently ignored government orders to drop content related to farmers' protests.

READ MORE: 'Without social media, I have no voice': Twitter blocks Indian activist's account amid farmer protests

Big social media firms will be required to remove content within 36 hours of receiving a legal order, appoint Indian citizens to key compliance roles, and set up a mechanism to respond to complaints, according to the new rules.

In May, WhatsApp filed a legal complaint in Delhi against the Indian government, seeking to block the regulations taking effect on Wednesday that experts say would compel the firm to break privacy protections of its nearly 400 million users in the country.

"This will have a chilling impact on internet users in India, as platforms will censor more speech under the threat of enforcement," Apar Gupta, executive director of Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights groups in Delhi, said at the time.

INDONESIA REGULATION

A regulation that came into force in November 2020 requires all private digital services and platforms - including social media networks - to register with the Indonesian information technology ministry, and agree to provide access to their systems and data.

Those that failed to register by May 24 will be blocked.

Authorities said at the time it was designed to "create a fair, if we can't have a level, playing field."

But the regulation is "a tool for censorship that imposes unrealistic burdens on the many digital services and platforms that are used in Indonesia," said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor at Human Rights Watch.

"It poses serious risks to the privacy, freedom of speech, and access to information of Indonesian internet users."

MYANMAR CYBER LAW

Myanmar's military proposed new cyber laws just days after ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, seeking sweeping powers to access user data, block websites, order internet shutdowns, and imprison critics.

The draft law requires online service providers to keep a broad range of user data, including the person's name, ID card number, and physical address, for up to three years. Companies must provide the data to authorities when requested.

Online service providers are also required to block or remove a wide range of information at the instruction of authorities, including "misinformation and disinformation", information "causing hate, disrupting the unity, stabilisation and peace," and statements "against any existing law".

Authorities said the proposed bill aims to protect the public, and prevent crime and the use of electronic technology to harm the state or its stability.

The "draconian" bill would hand the military "almost unlimited power to access user data, putting anyone who speaks out at risk", said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor at Human Rights Watch.

CAMBODIA INTERNET GATEWAY

Cambodia last week established a China-style national internet gateway that will let all online traffic be controlled and monitored, which rights groups said would be a tool for long-time leader Hun Sen to stifle dissent.

It requires service providers to make users complete online forms with their correct identities, and says failure to connect networks to the gateway within a year would result in operating licenses being suspended and bank accounts frozen.

The decree "will restrict the fundamental rights and freedoms of people, especially the freedom of expression, the right of access to information, the right to privacy, and online democratic expression", more than 60 local human rights groups said in a statement.

Authorities said the decree does not authorise the collection of user data or restrict freedom of expression.

CAMBODIA CYBERCRIME BILL    

A draft cybercrime law, the details of which have not been made public, threatens increased surveillance of internet users, privacy rights, and free speech online, human rights groups say.

The proposals include three years in prison for intentional false statements that have an "adverse effect" on national security; public health, public safety, or public finances; the results of a national election; that incite racial hostility, hatred or discrimination; or cause a loss of public confidence in the government or state institutions.

Authorities say the law aims to "protect security and public order".

But the draft law's terms "are incredibly broad and vague, and would give an already authoritarian government even more power to arbitrarily prosecute critics and political opponents," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

SINGAPORE CONTACT TRACING DATA LAW

Singapore in February said it would allow police to access personal data from its coronavirus contact-tracing app for some "serious" criminal investigations, to address privacy concerns among users and safeguard against unauthorised use.

"The legislation is intended to remove any doubt about what personal contact tracing data can be used for," Singapore's Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO) said.

But critics said the move opened the door to the data being used for other purposes at a later date.

'FAKE NEWS' LAWS

Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines have passed laws to regulate so-called fake news about the coronavirus, according to data from the International Press Institute.

But the new rules extend far beyond comment on the coronavirus, with authorities using the pandemic as a pretext to place restrictions on speech that could outlast the current emergency, said IPI Advocacy Officer Jamie Wiseman.

"For illiberal leaders who have long sought new methods to suppress independent media and dissent online, the health crisis and subsequent "infodemic" presented an opportunity to rush through laws without scrutiny and add another tool to their legislative arsenals," he said.

This article was updated on July 30, 2021 to add details of a new Thai decree.

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(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Helen Popper and Lin Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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