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How the events of 2020 will shape Asia-Pacific’s digital future

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By Rajnesh Singh

Very few periods over the course of modern history have shaped humanity, culture and politics the way 2020 has. The global health pandemic, the economic slowdown caused by lockdowns, extreme climate events, increasing trade tensions and complex geopolitics, have compounded the challenges that the Asia-Pacific region faces. I take a look at some of the implications, and how the Internet has driven changes that will be felt for years to come.

1. The Internet as a lifeline during crises

The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that the Internet is a lifeline for individuals and businesses to cope during lockdowns, and for authorities to monitor and manage the pandemic. The Internet has also been indispensable in enabling innovative solutions and accelerating research in treatments and vaccines. Countries experienced an exponential surge in network traffic, particularly during the second quarter as lockdowns and social distancing measures were imposed. Yet, the Internet remained resilient throughout, demonstrating the value of its “network of networks” open architecture.

2. Rapid growth in Internet uptake

The lockdowns brought many new users online, including older people, accelerated the adoption of social media and e-commerce, and introduced lasting changes to human behaviour in the way we learn, work, play, shop and socialise. In South-East Asia, one in three digital service users came online for the first time during the pandemic. Globally, social media adoption jumped by more than 12% in the past 12 months, which translates to about 14 people starting to use social media every second since about a year ago. Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan are among the top 10 adopters of e-commerce with 80% or more of their population buying online in 2020.

This increased adoption has been fuelled by changes and improvements in the e-commerce ecosystem, such as more efficient and affordable logistics, including cross-border logistics; incorporation of their own payment systems since access to traditional forms of banking remain low in many Asia-Pacific countries; and the shift from luxury goods to everyday necessities, like groceries. Chinese shopping platform, Meituan, saw a 400% increase in demand for online groceries during the pandemic, and online shopping continued to increase, even after regions in China emerged from lockdown.

3. Continuing and new digital divides

During the COVID-19 crisis, governments moved education online and promoted work from home, developed COVID-19 portals to share official information, and established online application and appointment systems for essential services. Moving work, education and essential services online clearly exposed the digital divide – bringing to light the ripple effects on inequality and exclusion for those without access to the Internet.

In response, governments and telcos in many countries announced temporary measures such as the provision of additional data allowances, and free or discounted data packages, and supported the transition to remote working, e-learning and e-commerce, especially for low-income individuals, students and micro and small businesses. Yet, those most vulnerable and marginalised are still unable to access the benefits of the Internet for various reasons – exposing the flaws in existing digital transformation frameworks, including in advanced economies.

Latest data from GSMA shows that the rural-urban and gender gaps in mobile Internet use remain substantial in low- and middle-income countries, with those living in rural areas 37% less likely to use mobile Internet than those in urban areas, and women 20% less likely to use mobile Internet than men. In least developed countries, women are 52% less likely to be online than men. UNICEF found that only 13% of children and young people in South Asia have Internet access at home.

Affordability, including device and access subscription costs, remains a challenge. New digital divides are also emerging – both within and between countries — based on factors such as the type of access available, bandwidth (speed, and accompanying data allowances), device capabilities and digital  literacy levels.

4. Increased digital surveillance

The COVID-19 pandemic has catalysed digital innovation,12 and contributed to disseminating information, managing logistics and supply chain for masks and personal protective equipment, diagnosing and treating patients, tracking and monitoring those infected, and predicting and modelling the pandemic. The deployment of contact-tracing apps has probably received the most attention with enhanced public scrutiny over the privacy and security of these apps, and their potential to surveil individuals for purposes that are not directly related to the pandemic.

Governments’ efforts to contain the pandemic have resulted in the adoption of high-tech surveillance and tracking, which may remain in place post-pandemic to keep tabs on citizens’ activities. In the interest of health and safety, citizens may become more accepting of governments’ attempts of intrusive surveillance, which may have long-term implications on people’s privacy, security and human rights, especially when surveillance is coupled with efforts to reduce space for public debate.

In protests in Hong Kong and Thailand, governments have increased digital surveillance at protests and continued to surveil and criminalise people’s online activities. Tactics that protesters are using in digital activism and in avoiding surveillance, and governments’ methods to crackdown on protests and shape online narratives are evolving rapidly.

5. The infodemic and online censorship

During the pandemic, many people experienced first-hand the impact of misinformation and disinformation on public health and safety with false claims about the origins of the virus, its modes of transmission, and acceptable methods for treatment and prevention. The sheer volume of ambiguous, misleading and skewed information online made it very difficult for individuals to understand what is true and what is not. It caused an “infodemic”, and undermined trust in the Internet, as well as authorities.

Fear of the virus aggravated existing prejudices, which led to stigmatisation of suspected virus carriers, increased tensions and hate speech between ethnic and religious groups, and instances of violence. The sharing of patients’ personal information online, whether by design or through data leaks from contact tracing, led to harassment and stigmatisation of individuals accused of spreading the virus. Concerns around the pandemic intersected with other fears and conspiracy theories that predate COVID-19, including opposition to vaccines and 5G networks.

Some countries have used the infodemic as an excuse to pass new legislations that grant governments emergency powers to censor online content and silence critics. For example, in a ministerial decree in Thailand, content creators face up to five years in prison for spreading what the government determines to be false or harmful information. Other countries including Cambodia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cook Islands and Kiribati also passed similar legislations stipulating fines and jail terms for spreading fake news online. Many civil society organisations have raised concerns that governments will take advantage of these emergency powers to remove fundamental freedoms and increase control not only now but in the longer term.

Internet shutdowns continued to rise in 2020 in the attempt to stop unrest, protests and dissent. The internet in Jammu and Kashmir was restored only earlier this month — after nearly one-and-a-half years of complete or partial shutdown — in spite of the Supreme Court of India ruling against the government issuing indefinite internet shutdown orders. However, an important win for the rights of Internet users took place in Indonesia in June when the Jakarta Administrative Court ruled that the Internet shutdowns in Papua and West Papua were illegal. But generally, the region has experienced a rise in digital surveillance, online censorship and Internet shutdowns.

6. Shaping narratives on social media

Social media has continued to be crucial in keeping people informed and connected, especially since it is the only way some people access online content. Social media platforms have also become an important space for shaping political discussions, as evident in the Hong Kong and Thailand protests that have used social media to organise mass gatherings and build regional solidarity.

The general environment of uncertainty and information overload around COVID-19, however, has primed the social media space for more targeted disinformation and propaganda efforts. Some of these appear to be executed by organised groups, backed by bots and trolls, to spread fear and drown out political dissent domestically, and manipulate online narratives and sway policies around the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in social media companies investing more heavily in content moderation and content contextualisation than ever before, and civil society has urged these companies to commit to transparency measures. But the public is increasingly wary of these tech giants’ inconsistencies with content moderation as they struggle to contain harmful content and hate speech, or act under governmental pressures. Moreover, social media companies’ fact checking are not implemented for all countries – they see little financial incentive to build systems and invest in content moderation for Pacific markets with relatively few users, for instance.

7. Escalating tech wars

There has been growing tensions among the global powers, and a resurgence of nationalism, which are being played out in cyberspace. The Internet is increasingly becoming an arena for political disputes and competition between the different global powers, including big tech companies. The rollout of 5G is being hampered by sanctions imposed by the US against Huawei, for example. This has forced many countries to abandon Huawei hardware to buy 5G equipment from (often more expensive) competitors such as Samsung, Ericsson and Nokia.

Rising bilateral tensions between India and China and nationalist sentiments resulted in India banning hundreds of Chinese apps since June. The void left in the wake of their forceful exit from app stores has been rapidly filled by Indian counterparts. Indian apps have been taking advantage of the geopolitical shifts against China by attracting Indian users to Indian technologies.

These geopolitical tensions could undermine economic growth and social stability, heighten prejudices and discrimination, lead to conflict and unrest, and impact upon users’ safety and fundamental freedoms and rights, both online and offline. With app bans on the rise, users may lose important venues for free expression and the ability to choose what apps they use.

8. Rising digital sovereignty

Related to governments’ efforts to exercise more control over online activities, digital data and technology development, and to rein in big tech companies, some are attempting to assert digital sovereignty by imposing their own Internet regulations and restricting the flow of data across national borders.

In Pakistan, a new regulation was adopted in November that requires large technology and social media companies to establish offices and data centres in Pakistan within 18 months, and gives government the power to impose fines and block online platforms for violation of government censorship and data surveillance requests. Countries, including Brunei, China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam have also tightened their data localisation regulations, requiring data to be stored domestically and restricting the taking of data out of the country.

Disruptions to the global data flows have affected the sharing of knowledge over the Internet, like Chinese engineers using the Chinese platform, Gitee, instead of GitHub for open source collaboration, which could have implications on the world’s ability to work together on global issues such as climate change and inequality.

Also, in light of Huawei’s proposal for a “new Internet protocol” and efforts at various international fora, the ways in which Internet standards are developed will be an important area for observation and analysis with continually growing political effects.

9. Efforts to break encryption

Linked with governments’ attempts to increase control of cyberspace, they continue to find ways to undermine the use of strong encryption. In October, India and Japan joined the “Five Eyes” in issuing a statement that, while highlighting the need for encryption, also calls for the ability to break end-to end encryption.

In Australia, there has been no progress to-date following the report from the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor on recommendations for amending the Assistance and Access Act that authorises agencies to request or compel assistance from vendors and service providers in accessing encrypted messages.

In India, the proposed amendments to the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules under the Information Technology Act that undermines end-to-end encryption will likely continue to be a prominent issue around rules for digital platforms and communications service providers.

10. Looking ahead

The post-pandemic world is set to be shaped by the greater use of digital technologies for everyday activities. It is therefore more important than ever to ensure universal access to high-quality Internet that is affordable, fast and reliable.

The trends observed this year point to several future threats that may affect the Asia-Pacific region. Increased geopolitical maneuvering by domestic and foreign powers, coupled with economic contraction could cause tensions and conflicts to escalate and further exacerbate hate speech, disinformation and online censorship.

To deal with the pandemic, governments have implemented short-term economic stimulus measures and have also had to invest in vaccines for their citizens. This also brings into play the issue of fiscal space – more specifically what the implications are for longer-term infrastructure spending and development.

There is also the specter of the emergence of a fragmented Internet that is made up of islands of connectivity that may only interconnect under specific conditions. The Internet has been successful because of its open model and its ability to connect diverse networks together. If the ability to fully interconnect (and possibly even freely inter-operate) is lost, then we also lose the utility and value that a globally interconnected network provides. More than ever before, there is an urgent need to preserve the open Internet model and ensure any actions taken are well-considered and do not impact the very foundations of how the Internet works.

Recovery from COVID-19 and responses to future crises will require stronger mechanisms for transparency, better collaboration among institutions and governments within the region, and strengthened local capacity to ensure the Internet thrives and meets the needs of all people.

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Rajnesh Singh is a retired serial entrepreneur. He is Chair of the Asia-Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum and Regional Vice President for Asia-Pacific at the Internet Society. Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisations he is affiliated with.

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