Controlling the Information Space: Big Tech and Free Speech in Southeast Asia

By Andreyka Natalegawa and Kyra Jasper
Fueled by an explosion in the adoption of digital technologies across Southeast Asia, the digital space has become a new battleground for the contestation of democratic norms in the region. Digital technologies and social media represent not only engines for economic growth and platforms for free expression, but also a means through which authoritarian regimes can exercise control with an increasingly robust toolkit of coercive measures. Recent cases in Southeast Asia point to the need for the U.S. government and technology companies to have a coherent strategy. They must figure out how private entities should balance these dynamics to protect human rights and defend basic freedoms.
Internet penetration rates have increased rapidly over the past decade and social media is now an integral part of daily life for many Southeast Asians. The region is home to over 400 million internet users—70 percent of its population. Four of the 10 countries with the highest number of Facebook users are in Southeast Asia. While this boom in connectivity has given some marginalized groups a greater voice in public discourse, several Southeast Asian governments have taken measures to control online speech. They have implemented draconian laws and coerced tech giants to censor content, block accounts, and remove posts critical of governments. The cybersecurity and “fake news” laws imposed by governments across the region are often vague about what type of speech can be criminalized. The broad nature of these provisions has prompted concerns regarding the significant latitude that governments now have in censoring speech.
In 2018, Vietnam’s cybersecurity law made headlines for giving authorities broad powers to force technology companies to turn over user data and censor posts. This came five years after another law that prohibited social media users and bloggers from posting about anything other than personal information. In justifying the need for its restrictive data laws, the Vietnamese government has insisted that storing data inside Vietnam is “crucial to fighting cyber crime,” despite Google and Facebook saying that localizing data would be more costly and could exacerbate security risks.
In Thailand, these laws have been used to silence dissent. Civil rights activists have criticized the country’s Computer Crime Act of 2016 and Cybersecurity Act of 2019, which the government claims were passed to combat cyber threats and protect digital infrastructure. Private organizations are obligated under the 2019 act to grant the Thai government access to relevant data, computer systems, and other information related to cyber attacks.
Efforts to restrict speech and social media have accelerated over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. On March 11, Malaysia passed an emergency law penalizing those who disseminate fake news related to Covid-19 as well as companies and individuals that refuse to take down such information. The Centre for Independent Journalism, a Kuala Lumpur-based non-government organization, notes that the term “fake news” is not clearly defined in the law. This amplifies concerns that such laws could be applied beyond their stated purpose. The law comes after Malaysia revoked an anti-fake news law in October 2019 that critics charged was meant to stifle dissent. Several other Southeast Asian countries have imposed “anti-fake news” measures, including Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar.
The emergence of these laws has led to a marked increase in the number of cases prosecuted in relation to online speech. Over the past decade, the number of online defamation cases in Indonesia has spiked from just 5 in 2009 and 2010 to 768 between 2016 and February 2020. In Thailand, 55 people have been charged with lèse-majesté since November 2020 for online comments deemed critical of the monarchy. In recent years, Vietnam has embarked on a crackdown on free speech, arresting or prosecuting high-profile bloggers in a bid to increase pressure on online activists.
U.S. social media companies have largely complied with requests by Southeast Asian governments to take down content deemed to be in violation of local laws and standards. In April, Vietnam briefly suspended Facebook’s local servers, making the website temporarily inaccessible to the country’s netizens until the company agreed to increase compliance with Hanoi’s takedown requests. Facebook has since blocked hundreds of Vietnamese users without explanation. These developments follow what already appears to be an acceleration of Facebook’s compliance with censorship requests in Vietnam. In the first half of 2020 alone, the company restricted 834 pieces of content, compared to just 77 in the six months prior.
Facebook has defended its actions by saying that it generally restricts posts and users for violating a country’s “local laws,” while noting that the company “[doesn’t] always see eye to eye with governments in countries where we operate, including Vietnam.” The willingness of companies to comply with takedown requests can in part be ascribed to the growing significance of Southeast Asian markets in their global revenue streams. Facebook earned an estimated $1 billion in revenue in Vietnam in 2018, accounting for a third of its earnings in the region.
Beyond coercive tactics aimed directly at social media companies, Southeast Asian governments have employed a wide array of tactics to control the information space online. Countries like Vietnam have mobilized “cyber-armies” to monitor and report online content critical of the central government. These cyber-armies exploit the content moderation mechanisms on platforms like Facebook, reporting content en masse for violating “Facebook’s ever-pliable Community Standards, whether or not the rules were broken.” The Royal Thai Army has deployed fake accounts and bots on Twitter to boost pro-monarchy hashtags and launch attacks against pro-democracy activists. The Thai military has also been accused of employing similar measures on Facebook and Instagram.
While companies like Facebook and Twitter have made progress in removing fake accounts and bots, their efforts tend to be reactive rather than preventative. More action is needed to prevent these issues from occurring in the first place. Moreover, in developing new platforms or refining existing products, social media companies have often introduced unintended consequences that impact citizens’ freedom of expression. In October 2017, Facebook implemented a “test” that changed the way that posts would appear on news feeds in Cambodia. As a result, Facebook pages were required to pay to have their posts featured on a user’s main news feed. This test, which came in the lead up to the country’s 2018 elections, disproportionately impacted smaller news organizations, activists, and opposition candidates, who received significantly fewer interactions than usual on their posts during the testing period.
An increasingly draconian regulatory environment in Southeast Asia introduces significant risk for U.S. social media platforms and companies that wish to do business in the region. Companies must either adhere to these laws and face understandable condemnation for failing to protect basic freedoms, or shirk local regulations and risk being shut out of markets entirely. These platforms are integral to the fast-growing digital economy, and the fact that they have become so core to daily life makes them almost irreplaceable. But the role that U.S. social media platforms have played in the crackdown on activists in the region, whether by coercion or complicity, points to the need for focused attention and action from Washington. It is imperative that the U.S. government and social media companies work together in establishing and adhering to a set of principles that protect openness and basic freedoms. Failing to do so will complicate the Biden administration’s stated aims of centering human rights in foreign policy.

Andreyka Natalegawa is a research assistant with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kyra Jasper is a former research intern with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.