By Jon Dent (Guest Contributor)
I recently returned from the 5th international Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held in the Baltic capital of Lithuania, Vilnius. Six Southeast Asian free-speech campaigners, internet activists, and blogers braved the chilly autumn in order to ensure that their voice was heard at this singular international forum, bringing together governments, business, and civil society. While delegates came from all over the world, ASEAN’s governments were notably absent. I found the single Thai delegate, the large Indonesian delegation was notably absent, rumored to have preferred the shopping opportunities in Amsterdam.
Into this gap, representatives from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines stepped in and took and active role in the many workshops and discussions, both as panelists and participants. During the final summary session, the group’s representative from the Mindanao Bloggers Community shared insights and recommendations from Southeast Asia. The full statement was drafted collaboratively and simultaneously online, based on 2010 Southeast Asia Civil Society Statement on Internet Governance developed during the regional IGF held earlier this year in Hong Kong. Interestingly enough, this group was the only civil society group from Asia to provide input into the concluding session of this U.N. mandated forum.
Burdened with the weight millions of internet users across, the group raised several important points worthy of repeating here. Firstly, openness is key to democratic and open societies. Restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression online, such as state censorship and measures which block or bully intermediaries pose a threat to open societies. Intimidation and state censorship facilitate self-censorship, as is happening in countries like Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia, stunting the growth of democracy and openness.
Secondly, higher priority must be placed on addressing not only the global digital divide, but also national barriers to internet access. Various factors contribute to the low rates of internet penetration in countries like Burma and Laos, including failed state polices, struggling economic and social development, and poor technological infrastructure. A coordinated international effort must be made to address domestic policies that contribute to the digital divide in Southeast Asia and find solutions to bridge this gap.
Thirdly, the definition of cyber security must include elements that address right to privacy and civil and political freedoms, recognizing that levels of democracy and rule of law differ across the globe. Rights and protections taken for granted in Europe often don’t exist in our troubled part of the world. As recently seen in Thailand, Information Technology used without transparent and accountable oversight can pose a real threat to individual freedom. To address this, the Southeast Asian delegation called on the IGF to fully integrate the universal human rights agenda into their program and ensure that IGF policy proposals and recommendations are in line with international human rights principles and standards.
At the IGF, the group had the opportunity engage in a lively conversation with Vint Cerf, generally recognized as one of the “fathers” of the Internet. Vint shared the interesting observation that Internet users are getting younger and more sophisticated, suggesting IGF organizers print t-shirts saying “Warning – 13 year old behind you”. Southeast Asia’s young and vibrant Internet users are no exception to this global trend. While their governments increasingly try to control what they can access, create, and share online, it is reassuring to see the regions civil society actively pushing back, at home and at high level international forums.
Jon Dent is an independent researcher, human rights activists, Aikidokai, and shakshuka-chef extraordinaire living in Thailand.