Theater of Cruelty

Who controls the web

DATA LEGISLATION / The world's autocracies introduce new internet laws to prevent the emergence of "rebellious" groups, such as democracy movements and human rights organizations.


Although there is still cause for concern about civilian abuse by security forces in autocratic regimes, these regimes have increasingly used legal and bureaucratic tools to cripple opponents in recent years. For example, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Russia, Tanzania, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Venezuela have introduced increasingly stringent requirements for registration of organizations, foreign funding and public assembly. Autocracies have also taken great liberties in interpreting and using pre-existing laws that prohibit vaguely defined offenses, such as defamation and incitement to revolt, as well as anti-terrorism legislation. The latest addition to their arsenal of suppression methods is the new Internet laws.

Most countries have adopted Internet laws to safeguard privacy, fight crime and ensure financial transparency – and for good reason. But autocratic regimes often develop such laws in order to keep their opponents at bay, which they succeed by using an ambiguous language in the drafting of the laws. For example, when it comes to identifying who poses a social threat online, such laws may point to groups or individuals who have "a malicious will," seeking to "counter the state," "jeopardize the security or ideology of the kingdom," distort facts to create public panic "," promote homosexuality "or" create anti-state people's movements ". Such unspecified definitions make it possible for autocrats to portray any opponent as a security risk – thus obtaining a pretext to sweep the opponent off the field while scaring citizens to stand behind the regime.

Statutory suppression

There are many examples of this in Southeast Asia: Seven of the ten member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) still have some form of autocracy: authoritarian democracy (Cambodia, Singapore and Myanmar), one-party rule (Laos, Vietnam) , autocratic monarchy (Brunei) and military rule (Thailand). Until 2018, Malaysia was an authoritarian skin democracy. Over the past decade, these countries have expanded their anti-dissident legislation with more data and network security laws – all following the same formula. Cambodia's Internet Law, enforced by a new Internet Special Unit, uses ambiguous language for the purpose of restricting freedom of expression. In Singapore, the Internet Code of Practice fulfills the same function with the new Protection from Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act behind it, while the regime in Myanmar exploits the Internet regulations (adopted in 2000) that limit what can be shared and spread on the Internet: Telecommunications Law from 2013 criminalizes defamation, while the Electronic Transactions Act (enacted in 2004, revised in 2013) allows for severe penalties for a long list of unclear violations. The autocracies also apply the laws that were meant to prevent the spread of fake news – such as section 65 of Laos' penal code – against the opposition: During the 2018 election campaign in Malaysia, the ruling party passed a law against fake news in an attempt to paralyze the opposition – which still won .

Throughout Southeast Asia – and in autocracies around the world – brands
activists the new measures on the body.

An essential component of these repressive internet strategies is comprehensive surveillance. Thailand's new cyber security law – which complements the Computer Crime Act (enacted in 2007, revised in 2016) – provides the state with expanded surveillance capabilities and strengthens its position against "unspecified cyber attacks". The Thai Government
one – like the governments of Azerbaijan, Malaysia, Morocco and Qatar – has bought spyware (from, among others, the Italian-based company Hacking Team) that gives them the ability to hack into citizens' computers, mobile phones and GPS systems.

The requirements for data localization, which require technology companies to store citizens' data on local servers, facilitate this. Vietnam – like China, Nigeria, Pakistan and Russia – recently introduced such requirements under the pretext of preventing data theft. But keeping data within national borders also gives the government the opportunity to take control of them. Vietnam's cyber security law, which came into force in January, gives the government access to locally stored social media data, and they can thus remove "anti-state" content. China is taking it all a step further: With its enormous resources, it can use advanced artificial intelligence to analyze the incoming data stream, thus monitoring its citizens. In addition to statutory repression measures, governments use fake videos ("deepfakes") and online trolls to advance their agenda – and discredit activists. The online roles in Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam systematically bully dissidents online.


Across Southeast Asia – and in autocracies around the world – activists are noticing the new measures: In 2017, Malaysia's Communications and Multimedia Act was based on at least 38 cases in which defendants allegedly criticized the authorities or the monarchy. In Myanmar, the enforcement of the Telecommunications Act has led to over a hundred charges, in 2016 alone 54 people were indicted and 8 imprisoned for their statements on social media, and in 2017/18 hundreds of dissidents were accused by the Vietnamese regime of anti-state activism. The Thai junta has jailed several people for "sharing sensitive information" on social media, and in the run-up to the election, the junta is using cybercrime law to spread unfounded accusations against opposition parties while closing its eyes to the fake news of cybercriminals..

A comprehensive global response is needed to protect our common space.

For activists, it is demanding to navigate around the aggressive network security laws and other forms of digital repression, especially since this is still unploughed ground. But that has not stopped anyone from trying (like those in South Korea) and in fact to some extent succeeding in promoting public control over the authorities. Several educational organizations are also working to create a platform for digital education, so that the citizens themselves can help stop the authorities' abuse of data legislation.

The activists actively lobby for democratic governments and international organizations, and call for pressure on the autocratic regimes. But a more comprehensive and coordinated global response is needed to protect the common space of the Internet. Only through sustained public pressure can we persuade autocratic regimes to revise – or reverse – their internet policies.

Translated by Vibeke Harper
Sombatpoonsiri is a senior lecturer in political science at Thammasat University and affiliated with the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA). She is also the author of Humor and Nonviolent Struggle in Serbia. (c) Project Syndicate, 2019.

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