‘Draconian’ moves to control internet in Asia raise surveillance fears – Rights group


Countries in Asia have introduced a slew of internet and data use legislation in recent months that raise the risk of mass surveillance while threatening free speech and privacy rights, human rights group warned.

“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.

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 and websites.

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.


Just recently, 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.

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 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.

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.

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

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


A leader of the BharatiyaJanata Party-led government said last week that authorities were working on new laws to regulate social media because it has a “powerful” influence that existing laws were not designed for.

“We require new rules and laws to tackle and manage. The government is already working in this direction,” said Ram Madhav, a member of parliament.

Days earlier, authorities warned social media platforms they must follow the country’s laws after Twitter did not fully comply with a government order to remove more than 1,100 accounts and posts.

Officials said the posts were spreading misinformation about ongoing protests by farmers over agricultural reforms.


Singapore earlier this month 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.

“Surveillance, identification and tracking can easily lead to abuse and discrimination. The state could easily change its mind and include other conditions later,” said Sutawan at DigitalReach. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)