Promoting safety, protecting freedom: regulating internet use across the Indo-Pacific

By Tanvi Nair

Countries in the Indo-Pacific region are increasingly regulating digital platforms and internet services. As governments grapple with how best to regulate, the tension between promoting online safety and protecting online freedom intensifies.
There is a legitimate and urgent need to regulate digital platforms and services. As social harms resulting from sharing of violent or extremist content are exacerbated by the internet, citizens are rightly calling on governments to regulate. This is particularly the case when governments feel that platforms are not voluntarily doing enough to prevent the harms. The era of platform self-regulation is over. 
ANU’s Tech Policy Atlas, an open-source repository tracking global tech regulation, shows that 59 out of 72 jurisdictions currently captured in the Atlas have implemented regulations specifically relating to online harms and safety, content regulation, and mis/disinformation. In the Indo-Pacific, countries that have been most active in this space include Australia, Singapore, India, Malaysia, and South Korea. Australia has led the global response to online safety, as it was the first country in the world to establish a commissioner dedicated to protecting citizens from online harms.
This trend toward greater content regulation demonstrates growing interest in holding platforms accountable, particularly when self-regulation by the industry falls short. In lieu of sufficient self-regulation, governments are showing that they are willing to step in and regulate online.

Australia as an Indo-Pacific leader for internet safety

Established in 2015, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner has been a world leader in implementing safeguards to promote online safety, including via the passage of the Online Safety Act (2021). This legislation is aimed at improving online safety for all Australian citizens and, among other things,  empowers the office to issue platforms with notices to block or takedown content that depicts illegal material.
Australia’s establishment of the eSafety Commissioner and Online Safety Act has been the catalyst for similar regulatory responses in the region. For example, following suit of the establishment of the eSafety Commissioner, Fiji also established its own Online Safety Office in 2018.
More recently, Singapore has released its own Online Safety Act that relates to blocking of ‘egregious’ content. This is in addition to its Prohibition of Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) (2019), which permits a government minister to declare that content online is false and order the content to be corrected or removed. POFMA is concerning because not only does it permit ministers to demand platforms take down content, it also provides for criminal penalties for anyone found guilty of breaking the law. While laws relating to online safety and content takedown are not inherently bad, laws which have overarching powers can have adverse implications for freedom of expression online.

The dangers of over-regulating

Australia’s Online Safety Act has narrow and clearly defined applications. However, elsewhere in the region, there has been a notable surge in the introduction of sweeping and overarching powers to regulate online harms. This raises concern that legislation implemented with the objective to protect from online harms could be used to impede freedom of expression.

One example of misuse of regulatory powers to control legitimate content can be seen in the Philippines, where the government used antiterrorism laws to ban news sites that were critical of the current government.

Similarly, there are concerns that Indonesia will expand its already controversial Ministerial Regulation 5 (2020) (MR5). MR5 currently requires digital services to register with the government and consent to the government accessing all their systems and data, and for platforms to ensure that prohibited content is proactively taken down or risk being blocked. These rules have been criticised by Human Rights Watch as being overly broad and restrictive. With Indonesia planning to expand MR5 to include specifications on timeframes for platforms to take down content, there is a risk that internet environment in Indonesia will become even more restricted.

These kinds of regulation contribute to Freedom House’s assessment of a global decline of freedom on the internet for the 13th consecutive year.

What next?

The trajectory of internet regulation in the Indo-Pacific will continue to be influenced by the ongoing need to consider online safety and freedom of expression. It’s important to remember that the two are not mutually exclusive.
When regulating digital platform and services, governments should pay close attention to regulatory design. Prohibited and illegal content should be narrowly defined to avoid the laws being misused to suppress legitimate speech. Moreover, robust appeals mechanisms and oversight of the regulators should be built into the legislation. Appeals mechanisms should allow for citizens to appeal decisions by governments that impact their freedom of expression online. Oversight of the regulators can include measures such as having monitoring and reporting requirements from the regulatory body. In doing so, we will ensure protection from online harms while promoting online freedoms.

About the author

Tanvi Nair is a Research Fellow at the Australian National University’s Tech Policy Design Centre. She is the lead researcher and project manager of the Global Tech Policy Atlas, which is a public repository of national tech policy, strategy, and legislation. Tanvi has a keen passion for good tech governance.

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