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Upholding Human Rights and Privacy in the Digital Age

This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of ASEANFocus, titled “Digitalisation in ASEAN”. ASEANFocus is a quarterly publication by the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, and publishes analyses on current events and issues in Southeast Asia. Access the full article here.


The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically deepened our relationship with technology as the outside world has shrunk and the online world grown. The Internet has been an incredible resource, allowing people to keep connected and working. But its injection deeper into our lives, especially in contexts where digital rights are limited, heightens already serious threats to privacy, human rights and democracy.

State of Play

On the surface, these digital tools have been empowering. But in the background, companies and governments are amassing data that is often not well secured, leaving its owners vulnerable to rights violations. Protection of digital rights in Southeast Asia is limited, and advocacy for these rights has been prioritised by only a small section of civil society.

COVID-19 contact tracing apps are a case in point. For the most part, they have seen little uptake in the region – even in Singapore where the government is now seeking to make its use mandatory, compliance has only reached 45% as of October 2020. The low uptake of contact tracing apps might suggest a broader culture of concern about personal privacy, but on the whole, the region lags when compared to Europe and North America. Of course, approaches and cultures differ across each country. While most countries in the region do have some data protection laws, they are often weak or poorly enforced, raising concerns about the security of the data and how else it might be used. Given the crisis, many are willing to trade privacy for security, but we have to wonder if the tracking and tracing will end once the pandemic is over. Contact tracing apps aside, “COVID-normal” is accelerating the already day-to-day Surveillance.

In that sense, Southeast Asia’s challenges are not unique. Fundamentally, the Internet has a problem, perhaps captured with the greatest clarity in recent times by Shoshana Zuboff in her book on The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. As Zuboff argues, surveillance is the business model – it is built into the design as a fundamental part of most platforms. Collecting as much user data as possible is how platforms make their money – the data is employed to better target advertising, to sell to marketeers, to build better algorithms and much more. Attention is the highest priced commodity – this is why you constantly ping pong around the Internet, as psycho-social tricks are pulled to keep you jacked in. We are frogs in increasingly hot water.

As the Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrated, it is possible to weaponise that data to great effect – it can give whoever can pay for it unprecedented power and influence. Privacy is integral to democracy and dissent, partly as the more someone knows about you, the easier it is to influence you. But it is also because privacy provides space to develop ideas, which may start off as unpopular, but may later turn out to be right. Would the Marcos dictatorship have fallen if it had the surveillance power most governments do now?


Camp Chindwin, which brought together 33 video activists, filmmakers and citizen journalists in Myanmar in 2015
In 2015, Camp Chindwin brought together 33 video activists, filmmakers, and citizen journalists in Myanmar. The camp provided Burmese The camp provided a space for Burmese participants to meet, interact, and collaborate with other filmmakers from the rest of Southeast Asia.

Geopolitical Tectonic Plates

Southeast Asia is growing as a theatre of conflict between the US and China. Technology will play an increasingly significant role in this tension, as American and Chinese companies compete for contracts, data, and influence – particularly in emerging and large-scale fields, where local companies find it much harder to compete. In choosing a technology provider – be it for 5G or AI – a government is making a political choice, one that underpins critical public and private infrastructure. Technology is a form of both soft and hard power.

There are very few Southeast Asian companies that have platforms with comparable user bases to American and Chinese companies. As a result, most citizens are sharing their data with platforms their governments have very limited control over. The software and hardware build multiple layers of sovereignty over and under that of the traditional state.

Given the existing weak protections for data and user rights, there is nothing to suggest that locally owned companies will do a better job at privacy protection. In fact, some civil society actors feel it may be worse. In addition, both the US and China also have sophisticated internet surveillance systems. China’s is spoken about much more these days. But the US system, as revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013, likely casts a wider net – though in a contradictory sense, may also be freer.

With this in mind, we should expect dominance games to play out across the online space, with privacy and other digital rights as likely casualties.


Despite positive developments like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), momentum overwhelmingly pushes in the direction of increased surveillance and the erosion of privacy. While the pandemic has accelerated this trend, one silver lining has been to bootstrap analogue civil society organisations into the digital era.

Many organisations in Southeast Asia were under-prepared for such a shift. The pandemic forced people to pay more attention to their online environment, their security and the related powers and politics. Change is not always elegant, but this rapid reckoning may bring longer-term gains. The new normal may bolster the modest attention paid to digital rights and privacy by civil society. However, there are a number of broader cultural shifts that still lay in wait.

Civil society, who should be the biggest allies of using open and secure technology, are often just as hooked on mainstream corporate platforms as everyone else. While this is an indication of just how much these platforms have locked in even their critics, it may also point to the lack of technical literacy, capacity and innovation, or a failure on the part of the alternative platforms. There are, for example, interesting and more ethical social media platforms, such as Mastodon and others. If behaviours and expectations are to change, citizens and civil society must take the lead.

Of course, civil society itself must be strengthened so that it can more effectively address digital rights issues. To achieve such changes, civil society’s understanding of digital rights needs to be bolstered in a major way. There is significant scope for Southeast Asian universities to offer more subjects and degrees that focus on digital rights. There has been much growth in the past 10 years, but much remains to be done across a whole range of disciplines, from business, to engineering, to law. For example, it is quite common for the basics of digital security to not even be taught as part of a journalism degree.

Grants and other funding sources are increasingly supporting civil society, but it is a drop in the ocean, considering the challenge at hand. It will take tens of millions to even make a dent. And while there are networks like the APrIGF and Coconet, initiated by EngageMedia and a range of partners, networking in the region is scant when compared to other parts of the world. Regional coordination is critical to build the shared knowledge, cross-regional understanding, resources, shared experiences, networks and collaboration that contribute to a diverse and vibrant civil society.

On some level, it may be unfair to demand these changes on an individual and civil society basis, given that escaping the major platforms can be a form of social suicide.

Government policy, of course, plays a key role, though we must also be careful how critique can be weaponised. For example, in September President Duterte took on the platforms when Facebook removed a range of fake accounts that were highly critical of his opponents. Threats to ban and regulate platforms may also impact free expression and assembly, and many sides, both progressive and conservative, are calling for tighter regulation. Sustaining a functional public sphere and freedom of expression is increasingly fraught with various risks.

Getting the policy settings right is, therefore, incredibly important. It is unlikely that companies that benefit from surveillance capitalism will give up their very profitable business model until citizens compel their governments towards regulation. At the same time, civil stay on guard for overreach and also be creating alternatives, such as setting up platforms that prioritise privacy over profit.

Ultimately, the solution will be found in a combination of civil society driving cultural and individual change, government policy change, and a change in the business model itself, away from surveillance as its foundation. That challenge is enormous, but the alternative of a world without privacy is worse.


Read the full issue on the ISEAS website.

Andrew Lowenthal is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of EngageMedia.