BANGKOK: South-East 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 both for the governments, which are counting on the digital economy to drive growth and innovation amid domestic political tensions, and the companies, which view South-East 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 Philippines in demanding action from Google, Facebook and other companies on content regulation and tax policy.
“Together, we are 80% of the region, ” Indonesian communications minister Rudiantara told Reuters. 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 late-August meeting with regional counterparts, proposed that all 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) require internet and streaming video firms to set up domestic “verification centres” to combat fake 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 Reuters.
The council of Asean telecoms regulators has accepted Thailand’s proposal for the centres, and a separate document with guidelines for economic contribution is expected to be formally adopted at the November Asean summit, a source in the Thai regulatory agency with knowledge of the talks told Reuters.
“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 2018 Net Freedom survey, all Southeast Asian countries rank as either not free or partly free.
Emilie Pradichit, director of Thailand-based Manushya Foundation, which advocates for online rights, told Reuters governments in the region could use the label “fake news” to target dissidents. 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 told Reuters.— Reuters
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