The Assault on Human Rights on the Digital Frontline

The Assault on Human Rights on the Digital Frontline

The protection of human rights is currently being fought on two different fronts. The first encompasses grassroots movements and legislative efforts. This entails mobilizing through organized protests and advocating for change through conventional political channels on the streets and within legislative institutions. The second front involves leveraging the power of cyberspace.

The rise of the modern internet has led to the rapid spread of information, providing new avenues for activists and human rights defenders to coordinate their endeavors, exchange vital information, and closely monitor the state's actions. Moreover, the internet has extended its reach and increased public awareness of political and social issues that may have received less attention.

Southeast Asia currently stands as the second fastest-growing region in the world regarding its rising number of internet users. However, the region also hosts authoritarian governments that heavily monitor and control online civic space.

These oppressive regimes are notorious for their alarming propensity to weaponize the internet as a tool to suppress any form of criticism and dissent. As a result, civil society in the region faces an arduous struggle to fully exercise their fundamental rights of expression and online assembly within this restrictive environment. Likewise, Southeast Asian activists and human rights defenders face an uphill battle to navigate the landscape of online activism; their every move is closely scrutinized, and authoritarian regimes monitor their online activities.

The State of Online Civic Space in Southeast Asia

On May 30, 2023, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report titled, Human rights impacts of new technologies on civic space in South-East Asia, that discusses how governments in the region have used new technological developments and the internet to threaten the safety of human rights defenders and undermine freedom of expression in the online public sphere.

The report discusses six trends that have emerged in Southeast Asia’s online civic space over the past decade.

The first trend is the spread of hateful, misogynistic, and discriminatory content. The OHCHR observes that despite the internet’s potential to foster solidarity in a region rife with ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity, Southeast Asian governments and social media companies have failed to enforce regulations that stop or limit the proliferation of hate speech and other forms of harassment on online platforms. To make matters worse, the report also notes that in their rush to control the spread of such content, some governments have infringed upon certain marginalised groups' freedom of expression and privacy.

Organized online attacks and harassment are the second trend observed by the OHCHR. The report states that social media and other online platforms have been used to “launch organized and coordinated attacks on HRDs and journalists.” The OHCHR also notes the possibility that these actions might be state-sponsored and are likewise backed by powerful economic actors or certain political groups. These attacks often coincide with disinformation or propaganda campaigns that aim to dismantle the credibility of journalists or activists who challenge the state's actions.

In response to these attacks and harassment, the report states that while social media companies are taking action, their efforts are mainly aimed towards Western countries. At the same time, the rest of the world is left largely unaddressed.

The third trend is the abuse of digital surveillance technologies. The OHCHR notes that Southeast Asian governments have invested heavily in tools, hardware, and software that monitor social media activity, collect biodata, and use facial recognition technology.

The report adds that private companies outside of Southeast Asia may have aided in supplying and distributing these tools into the region. It also states that existing legal and institutional frameworks in the region do not have the proper protocols to ensure that this technology is used with transparency and accountability.

Likewise, most of Southeast Asia does not have laws protecting personal data, and some countries, such as Vietnam, force social media companies to store their data locally, giving the country legal jurisdiction over private and personal information.

The fourth trend observed by the OHCHR is the proliferation of restrictive legal and regulatory frameworks in Southeast Asian countries. The report states that all countries in the region have laws that constrain online freedom of expression to some capacity. Likewise, more recent laws have been passed that are meant to stop the spread of fake news, protect computer systems from failure or attack, or monitor online space by incorporating them into existing regulatory frameworks.

Southeast Asian states have used these laws to expand their power and limit free speech. Likewise, the OHCHR notes that many of these laws include problematic provisions that conflict with protecting human rights. Broad and vague definitions of the law, disproportionate penalties given to people who have allegedly violated the law, and the lack of judicial oversight are just some examples of the many issues with these regulations that are mentioned in the report.

The many arrests and prosecutions related to expression online in Southeast Asia are the fifth trend in the OHCHR report. The report observes that defamation laws have been weaponized by corporations, politicians, and government officials in Southeast Asia to charge many human rights defenders and journalists with “cyber-libel.” The report also notes that many human rights defenders were prosecuted because of their statements regarding sensitive issues such as police and military abuse, corruption, and discrimination.

Lastly, the sixth trend mentioned in the report is internet shutdowns and network interference. The OHCHR states that internet shutdowns in the region are used by governments to “intentionally disrupt access to information and communications systems and prevent their use.” It argues that this tactic is almost impossible to defend under international human rights laws and is an “unnecessary and disproportionate response, even when legitimate concerns exist.” These shutdowns devastate other sectors of society, such as emergency and health services. They may lead to the reckless loss of human life due to the disruption of essential communication channels.

The State of Online Civic Space in Vietnam

Over the years, Vietnam has become infamous for its use of technology for the targeted harassment of human rights defenders, the silencing of government critics, the collection of private and personal information, and the arbitrary application of the law to squash any form of dissent. Online civic space in Vietnam has become increasingly constrained, with severe restrictions placed on freedom of expression and digital privacy and among the countries in Southeast Asia; most, if not all, of the six trends discussed in the OHCHR’s report can be observed in Vietnam.

The country’s online public sphere has deteriorated to a point where anyone can be imprisoned for a simple social media post that expresses even the tiniest hint of criticism against the government. In effect, Vietnamese citizens have to take extra care about their online activities and practice a form of self-censorship to avoid repercussions. The fear of imprisonment has led many to cautiously navigate their online presence to avoid drawing attention or crossing any arbitrary boundaries put up by the state.

Despite this, human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and their allies continue to persevere in their efforts to advocate for freedom of expression and push for positive change within Vietnam. They have found ways to work around the restrictions placed by the state to collaborate and challenge the status quo. Even in the face of imprisonment and repression, they continue to work and fight to protect human rights.

The fight for a genuinely free and open internet in Vietnam is an ongoing struggle that rests on the unwavering commitment of those who face the largest risk. With the aid and support of the international community, there is hope that their efforts will pave the way for a future online civic space in Vietnam that is no longer constrained and where the principles of freedom of expression and other human rights are upheld and respected.

The OHCHR’s report can be accessed here.


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