The Shrinking Online Civic Spaces in South and Southeast Asia 

In recent years, the online civic spaces in South and Southeast Asia have been shrinking. In 2021, Cambodia passed the National Internet Gateway Law, mandating all Internet traffic in the country be rerouted through the National Internet Gateway. This law empowers the government to block and disconnect network connections that it deems detrimental to safety, social order, culture, traditions, and customs, potentially infringing on the rights to free expression and privacy. 

Shortly thereafter, two other countries in the region introduced similarly restrictive laws. Bangladesh’s Cyber Security Act contains provisions that could be used against individuals expressing dissent or criticizing the government. Experts have warned that the SIM Card Registration Law in the Philippines could increase state surveillance and data breaches, potentially violating free speech. The trend of enacting legislation with broad powers spread to Sri Lanka with the Online Safety Act, which grants the government the power to disable access or remove prohibited online content. 

For the past 20 years, EngageMedia, a regional partner of the Greater Internet Freedom (GIF) project, has been advocating for digital rights and open, secure technology. With staff located across Asia-Pacific, including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Bangladesh, India, and the Philippines, EngageMedia is well-positioned to monitor and mitigate harmful developments on the ground. 

“We have observed four alarming trends: restricted freedom of expression due to vague legislation that can lead to human rights abuses, increased attempts to control access to information, surveillance attempts, and efforts to shift liability to platforms,” explains Siti Rochmah Desyana, Project Assistant in Digital Rights from EngageMedia. 

In addition to restrictive legislation, the region is experiencing Internet shutdowns, including hyper-specific network shutdowns, Internet throttling, geoblockades, and privacy breaches. These measures are used to silence opposition and target human rights advocates and journalists. 

“We have noted some surveillance attempts, especially the use of Pegasus software in the region. The issue with this, which remains to be discussed in international dialogue, is the governance of surveillance technologies and the digital economy that goes with it,” adds Digital Rights Project Officer, Prapasiri “Nan” Suttisome from EngageMedia. 

There is also growing concern about AI adoption and governance in Southeast Asia, particularly in countries where AI trade is prominent and competitive. EngageMedia has noted this trend in the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore. 

Phet Sayo, Executive Director of EngageMedia, explains that there is a push within the region to adopt regulations to allow for AI trade.  

“We see a risk in that. It leapfrogs the notion of data protection because AI thrives on the free flow of information and data. If you allow that free flow without guardrails, then you are giving up data protection,” says Phet Sayo, Executive Director of EngageMedia. 

Many of these challenges show similarities across the region and often transcend borders. Governments do not work alone – they learn from each other. This is why supporting and empowering civil society organizations (CSOs) and vulnerable groups, and increasing citizens’ engagement in Internet governance, lies at the heart of GIF. 

“GIF has been a major flagship project, particularly for strengthening civil society’s ability to engage in public policy issues. We want to foster free and open-source communities in a sustainable way. Another aim is to foster solidarity and alignment with civil society. GIF has been a large part of that in the seven countries, but we scaled that up under the umbrella of digital rights in Asia-Pacific, with national, sub-regional, and regional forums and meetings,” explains Executive Director, Phet Sayo. 

The Power of Localization: How GIF and EngageMedia Empower Local Partners 

Localization is another essential part of GIF. By enabling local and regional partners to lead this work, GIF supports local actors to build stronger, trusted networks with peer organizations, gain technical expertise from expert international organizations, and share lessons learned. EngageMedia also considers localization as an invaluable feature of GIF. 

“Often, projects come in with a set theme that does not fit the local context. Having partners decide which subjects to tackle and which are most beneficial for them is super helpful. GIF provides them with a platform to advocate based on their needs,” emphasizes Desyana. 

As a GIF regional partner, EngageMedia has established diverse local partnerships with organizations working with journalists, youth, women, mothers, schoolteachers, marginalized groups, grassroots organizations, and more. 

“Locally led means our partners choose the topics and communities they focus on. Localization goes beyond translating – it entails understanding the community. This makes the process very specific, both in subject matter and for the people,” says Desyana. 

Many of GIF’s local partners are not the usual suspects. 

“Most are not the biggest players in the digital community in their countries. For example, a local partner organization founded by a journalist works on disinformation and hate speech campaigns. Over the past three years, we have helped them build their digital rights portfolio,” says Nan. 

In the Maldives, a country still struggling with the digital divide, topics like digital security and rights were not in focus. 

“We opened up digital rights and security for our local partner in the Maldives. Before, they only promoted human rights and democracy. Because of GIF, they started working on digital rights. Many people they engage with are learning for the first time what it means to have digital rights and engage in digital security,” explains Desyana. 

A locally led project also means understanding the risks that local partners face. 

“If a local partner says they are being blocked or monitored and cannot advocate freely, we offer support and find ways to reduce those issues. This support allows our partners to advocate for what they believe in while retaining their safety. Locally led does not always mean they take the lead. It also means they can inform us of their needs, and we can step in and help,” Desyana notes. 

The Power of the GIF Consortium 

Another essential value of GIF is that it works as a consortium, bringing together over 100 organizations in 39 countries, including international, regional, and local partners. By tapping into the pool of expertise spread across eight regions, GIF partners have numerous benefits and can establish different synergies. 

In Indonesia, the Ministry of Information reached out to EngageMedia to hold public consultations with CSOs on creating AI ethics guidelines. 

“They have a national strategy on AI and reached out to us to involve civil society. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) was brought in through our GIF connections to push this forward,” points out Sayo. 

In Nepal, with the proposed Social Media Usage and Regulation Bill, ICNL assisted the local GIF partner by providing legal analysis explaining how the draft bill violates international human rights standards and offering revision suggestions. 

Being part of a global system, GIF partners can present unified stances across regions in larger forums. Recently, the GIF Consortium contributed recommendations to open consultations on the Global Digital Compact, The Internet We Want, and NETmundial+10.  

“The greatest value of being part of a global system is that we lend credibility to each other and share viewpoints,” says Sayo. 

Building Capacity under GIF 

Not only have local partners grown under GIF, but EngageMedia has also expanded. Beyond being a well-established regional organization, EngageMedia has broadened its work and geographical scope, and more importantly, enhanced its team’s capacities.  

“Before GIF, our work was primarily focused on Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. But once we started working with GIF, our focus expanded from Southeast Asia to South Asia. We have worked in countries where we would not necessarily work without GIF – like the Maldives,” Desyana explains. 

The team also mentions that GIF has helped EngageMedia build its portfolio.  

“We already have an established team in Indonesia, primarily working on AI regulations. But now, under GIF, we are collaborating with more partners on various topics, making our advocacy work more diverse and in-depth,” adds Nan. 

Another significant change is the shift from being a reactive organization to a proactive one, actively advocating for change.  

“We are currently focusing on the root causes of problems and legislation and pursuing a more active role. With the help of GIF, we now have partners like ICNL, the Global Network Initiative, and Ranking Digital Rights, who provide insights on approaching governments, the public sector, and the private sector. They support us in expanding our advocacy efforts,” Desyana explains. 

The team has also achieved professional growth.  

“With the help of GIF, our team members have established themselves as experts in data protection and digital rights, often participating in international summits and gatherings like NETmundial, RightsCon, and many others. From an organizational and management perspective, this is a significant outcome from GIF,” concludes Executive Director of EngageMedia, Phet Sayo.