Sat, Sep 28, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Southeast Asia weighs unified approach to Big Tech regulation

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Fanny Potkin  /  Reuters, BANGKOK and JAKARTA

Southeast Asian governments are banding together to take on global tech giants on issues including “fake news” and taxation, marking a new stage in the region’s approach to the Internet’s explosive growth.

The stakes are high for the governments, which are counting on the digital economy to drive growth and innovation amid domestic political tensions, and the companies, which view Southeast Asia’s social-media-loving population of 641 million as a key growth market.

The new initiatives, which have not previously been reported, include an effort by Indonesia to join forces with Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines in demanding action from Google, Facebook and other companies on content regulation and tax policy.

“Together, we are 80 percent of the region,” said Indonesian Minister of Communications and Information Technology Rudiantara, who uses only one name.

Indonesia is already preparing legislation requiring tech companies with online services to pay value-added tax on local sales, even when they are booked offshore.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s telecom regulator, in a meeting with regional counterparts late last month, proposed that all 10 members of ASEAN require Internet and streaming video firms to set up domestic “verification centers” to combat false news.

Thailand also urged discussion of how to demand “economic contributions” from the Internet firms, whether through taxes or fees, according to a copy of a speech seen by reporters.

The council of ASEAN telecoms regulators has accepted Thailand’s proposal for the centers, and a separate document with guidelines for economic contribution is expected to be formally adopted at the ASEAN summit in November, a source in the Thai regulatory agency with knowledge of the talks said.

“ASEAN as a group gives us enough leverage, and our combined user base on services like Facebook is big enough to lend us negotiating power,” the source said.

The initiatives reflect widespread concern that Internet services, to which most people in the region have gained access only in the past few years, are fanning ethnic and religious animosities, while avoiding paying their fair share.

Activist groups are nervous about the potential for institutionalized censorship. According to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net survey last year, all Southeast Asian countries rank as either not free or partly free.

Governments in the region could use the label “fake news” to target dissidents, said Emilie Pradichit, director of the Thailand-based Manushya Foundation, which advocates for online rights.

She called on companies to resist such attempts.

“We believe the governments should themselves not use untrue information to achieve goals that are to their advantage, and private sector organizations, such as Facebook, should take the lead in protecting netizens’ online freedom,” Pradichit said.

The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), which counts Internet giants Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter and messaging app Line among its members, said ASEAN risks hurting the digital economy unless the new policies are “right.”

“The potential of the region’s digital economy ... will likely be blunted by overregulation or indiscriminate taxes and fees,” AIC director Jeff Paine said, urging governments to focus on “industry partnerships and collaborations.”

It is not yet clear what level of support the new proposals enjoy and how they might be implemented in coming months. Indonesia’s plan follows its successful effort to get Alphabet’s Google to pay taxes on Indonesia-related advertising revenue booked at its Asia headquarters in Singapore.

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