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17. Digital rights in Southeast Asia and beyond: a review of RightsCon 2015

March 31, 2015


[Update 1 April 2015: See also PDF version.]

Last week I was in Manila to attend the 4th meeting of the RightsCon series, held on 24-25 March 2015. This series of conferences seeks ‘to advance solutions to human rights challenges by concentrating on the possibilities within the tech sector’. The Manila conference was organised by Access, a digital rights NGO, in partnership with Engage Media and the Foundation for Media Alternatives.

As stated on the conference website, the first ever RightsCon event to be held in Southeast Asia set out to pursue the following goals:

• Protecting rights online in the age of surveillance
• Technology and infrastructure interdependence
• Digital rights and economic development
• Freedom of information and Open Data
• Tech solutions for human rights challenges
• Limiting and measuring risk in the ICT sector

In the following review I first discuss eight of the sessions I attended by clustering them into four paired sessions under the subheadings ‘Ruling the internet’, ‘Regional networks’, ‘Online fundamentalism’ and ‘Social media interventions’. I then offer some first reflections on the event.

Ruling the internet

In the morning of the second day, I attended a mock international human rights tribunal in which legal and technological experts mulled over the validity of a YouTube video submitted by a civil society group purportedly showing a war crime.

The importance of triangulating the digital evidence with witness statements was pointed out by a panelist. Another issue raised was the need to bring together legal, digital and media expertise so that international jurisprudence can advance in an increasingly digital world. This echoes my working hypothesis about the key role played by lawyers, IT specialists and journalists in new protest movements such as the Arab uprisings, Spain’s indignados and the global Occupy movement (Postill 2014a).

Missing from the Q&A, though, was the potential role in future juridical developments of other specialists such as scholars in the humanities and social sciences (these fields were, in fact, under-represented throughout the conference). For instance, at one point in the proceedings one of the digital experts referred to the video’s narrative intent, an area of inquiry well suited to the humanities. Or consider the just mentioned significance of online-offline triangulation: here ethnographic expertise could be of invaluable assistance.

One thing is clear: technology alone will not lead progress in the fight against war crimes. As one audience member put it, we must ‘manage our expectations’ when it comes to technologies such as satellite imagery, for there is a wide gulf between the digital wizardry of Hollywood films and the actual evidence that satellites can provide, which very rarely comes in the form of a ‘smoking gun’.

A related session was devoted to the ‘chilling effect’ of state interventions in the digital realm. The case studies ranged from Pakistan’s blanket ban of YouTube following the uploading of a film about Mohammed, to India’s imminent ruling on intermediaries’ liability, to the EU Court of Justice’s 13 May 2014 ruling that internet users can request companies like Google to remove unwanted information about them, to examples from South Korea.

Regional networks

Panelists at the Asia-Pacific digital rights networking session were agreed that this region is far too large and unwieldy to allow for a common strategy. It makes more sense to organise at the sub-regional level, e.g. South Asia, Southeast Asia. Even then, national differences in infrastructure, legislation, political culture, economic development, and others, are still vast within these sub-regions. One area of concern is the highly uneven levels of English competence among civil society actors from different countries. As one participant from the Philippines noted, Filipinos tend to dominate conversations because of their fluency in English compared to their counterparts from neighbouring countries.

Southeast Asia provided the geographical setting for one of the sessions devoted to freedom of expression online. Internet activists from Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines compared and contrasted their experiences, with Thailand and Philippines standing at two ends of an authoritarian-democratic continuum. One of the Indonesian participants stressed the need for solidarity with Thailand, arguing that there are no guarantees that other countries will not return to military rule. Meanwhile, a Filipino member of the audience wondered whether his country’s ‘slow Internet’ was not a form of state censorship, despite the Philippines supposedly enjoying a ‘free’ internet. An unwired population, he added, poses less of a threat to the ruling elites than a net-savvy one.

Despite its Southeast Asian focus, the participants stressed the importance of overcoming regional parochialism and learning from the digital rights experiences of countries both near and far. Indeed it was during this session that we heard the good news that India’s Supreme Court had struck a draconian internet law that had been used by police to arrest critics of the government. The news soon spread to all other sessions, lifting our spirits throughout the remainder of the conference.

One major challenge identified by civil society participants was the speed at which both digital technologies and donors’ priorities change, making the task of building sustainable networks and coalitions increasingly difficult. One speaker encouraged us to think in terms of events rather than structures – echoing long-standing debates within anthropology and other social sciences. Here I would suggest the need to critically interrogate whether most of us suffer from a pro-sustainability bias. Perhaps it is time to remind ourselves that some ephemeral actions can have lasting effects – and that the most solid of structures can ‘melt into air’.

Online fundamentalism

On Wednesday I was fortunate to attend two back-to-back sessions on religious fundamentalism online in its multiple variants (Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc.) and how to curtail it. Panelists noted that ‘hate speech’ has become a global buzzword, yet one whose legal and everyday meaning is poorly understood. Often conflated with ‘offensive speech’, the latter notion is frequently used by religious conservatives to limit freedom of expression online.

A presenter from the South Asian region drew laughter when she said that we are too ‘beholden to the beards’. She also added that internet libertarians may not like the word ‘protection’, but that in many countries more state protection from the fanatic mobs was actually needed. This suggests to me a faultline running through the international digital rights scene dividing an anarcho-libertarian sector deeply mistrustful of the state – most firmly rooted in global North hubs such as Silicon Valley or Berlin –  from a secularist-rationalist sector, most active in the global South, where religious extremists and conservatives are often given a long leash by their governments.

A range of responses to hate speech against women, LGBTIQs, religious minorities, secularists and others were presented and taken up in the lively discussion. These included various forms of humour (mockery, parody, satire), with lessons to be learned from the Soviet era; the use of critical, rational, research-based evidence to counter dogma; and meeting online discourse with more discourse, not less. In addition, the role of men working alongside women to respond to sexist cyberbullying was highlighted, as well as the importance of building coalitions with like-minded groups and of exercising great caution when countering hate speech.

There was an interesting contrast between two of the main strategies presented, namely an inter-faith vs. a secularist approach.  One speaker was sceptical of  inter-faith campaigns in the face of the mounting aggression and intolerance from extremist quarters. This participant suggested that secularists should set the terms of the discussion rather than allow the fanatics to do so.

We also heard about the new YouTube moderation tools from a Google representative and listened to an entertaining talk from a Wikipedian. On Wikipedia, he explained, each speech ‘community’ has full autonomy to make its own decisions about controversial issues. For example, pressure from Orthodox Jews within Wikipedia led to the creation of a sanitised version of the Hebrew-language encyclopaedia that can be downloaded and consulted offline. Also, whilst the Malay-language Wikipedia does not show the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad, the German-language site does. This raises the question, not voiced during the session, of whether Wikipedia truly is ‘All the world’s knowledge’, as it claims to be.

The presenter also encouraged audience members to make more use of Wikipedia, yet adopting a ‘neutral viewpoint’, something that ‘opinionated’ activists may find hard to do: ‘Educate, don’t advocate’. By shedding light on certain issues, civil society actors are still furthering a cause, albeit on the basis of evidence, not opinion. The beauty of Wikipedia, he concluded, is that its volunteer editors are protected by America’s First Amendment wherever they are in the world. This means that a repressive state wishing to force Wikipedia to reveal information about a contributor would require permission from a US judge to do so. So far, this has occurred ‘zero times’.

Social media interventions

By far the most fun session I joined was the workshop ‘Hashtags, memes, and more: creative communication strategies for advocacy’. How can a civil society group or organisation make and spread successful hashtags? This was the challenge for the small groups who were given three topics to choose from. Our group – made up mostly of Southeast Asian activists – chose online censorship, taking Malaysia as our case study. After a series of brainstorming activities we finally settled for the hashtag #untrulyAsia (a play on the country’s famous tourism slogan “Malaysia, truly Asia”), which had its 15 seconds of fame during the whole-group discussion. We also proposed a transmedia strategy that built on existing networks to launch the slogan via Twitter and numerous other channels, both old and new.

The workshop convener, a seasoned campaigner, made some intriguing observations about the orality of digital culture, the demise of ‘digital dualism’ (that is, the idea of the online and offline as distinct realms), the reasons for the spread of protest sign language, and the cumulative effects of micro-affective campaigns over time, i.e. individual hashtags may be short-lived but a long series of them can make a difference (I have made a similar case about Spain’s indignados’ ‘nano-stories’, see Postill 2014b).

The session rightly assumed that most of us in the room were urban middle-class people with advanced digital skills and ready access to laptops and/or smartphones. But of course, countless millions in Southeast Asia — and around the world – are not in the same position (e.g. only 17% of Indonesians were online as of 2014). This gulf was addressed in the session ‘Social media without the internet’. Thus the smartphone app Firechat, made famous during Hong Kong’s 2014 ‘Umbrella Revolution‘,

works by creating its own network outside the internet, relying simply on the Bluetooth or Wi-Fi link that exist between one phone and another.

According to the presenter, Firechat can also help poor communities in the global South form their own local communication networks. Another presenter introduced Bubbly, a social voice platform that works across smartphones and feature phones. School staff in Jakarta successfully used Bubbly during last month’s floods to advise students to stay at home.

We also learned about engageSPARK, a messaging service that allows users to communicate through multiple channels, including SMS, voice, email, social media, and fax. This platform was used to send recorded messages to people in remote areas of the Philippines with timely updates about approaching typhoons and other valuable information. Surprisingly to spam-averse Westerners, local people did not tire of receiving the recorded messages, which they regarded as being both relevant and as a sign that they were at last ‘connected’ to the outside world and not forgotten (see Castells et al 2009 for a discussion of connectivity as a key factor in the popularity of mobiles in the developing world).

At this point, followers of the internet commentator Evgeny Morozov (2014) may dismiss these social media interventions as nothing but techno-utopianism. This would be the wrong inference to make, as I did not once hear anyone in the room announce that ‘This technology changes everything’, or words to that effect. Instead, participants displayed the familiar techno-pragmatism that I have encountered many times among internet-savvy people. This is, in fact, one of the chief characteristics of the political actors I am calling, at least for the time being, freedom technologists. The idea was not to hold hands and sing together whilst awaiting the imminent coming of a new digital dawn. It was a far more modest ambition: to experiment with some of the discursive and technical tools at their disposal.

A nagging issue

All in all, this was a highly successful event. As the conference hosts put it during the closing ceremony, the Manila conference provided a safe, gender-balanced space for civil society and technology actors from many different countries to meet and network. It was also an event where the importance of evidence-based (as opposed to opinionated) advocacy came to the fore.

As an anthropologist currently researching internet activism in Indonesia, this last point about the urgent need for empirical research was music to my ears – although in the present enthusiasm for Big Data we should not forget the equally crucial need for theoretical development. There is much scope here for future collaborations between anthropologists and other social scientists with colleagues from civil society, journalism, computer science, and the legal fields.

For me, RightsCon 2015 was an excellent opportunity to ‘follow’ my Indonesian research participants to another field site, a site where they engaged with counterparts from other parts of the region and beyond, setting their current activities against a much larger backdrop. In a sense, Manila was an extension of my Indonesian fieldwork.

Yet something about this event has been nagging at me. I am not entirely sure how to formulate this, but it has to do with the entrenched social inequalities of the world system. These inequities are glaringly obvious as soon as you step out of the comforts of an international hotel and walk the streets of Manila (or London, for that matter). By way of an experiment I tried to enter a beautiful gated community aptly named ‘Arcadia’, just across the road from the conference venue.  I was refused access by the security guards for not having a contact name and address inside the vast compound. ‘Sorry sir’, one of them apologised, ‘it’s SOP, Standard Operating Procedure’. Meanwhile, Arcadia’s army of workers was streaming out on foot, whilst the occasional luxury vehicle was allowed to enter through the gates.

Economic inequality has been on the rise worldwide for decades, which have witnessed the concomitant emergence of a global plutocracy (Freeland 2012). In the opening ceremony, ‘structural inequality’ was identified as one of the conference’s main concerns. However, not much was said about it during the conference, at least not in the sessions that I attended, including the closing ceremony. Yes, it did come up in the context of communication being a universal human right, but the subject was not taken up in any sustained way.

To me, the most urgent issue to tackle in future RightsCon events is precisely how to use our collective techno-political and research savvy to address the present global system’s grotesque inequalities. There is a crucial debate to be had between reformists who argue for multi-stakeholder approaches to the future of the internet (e.g. MacKinnon 2012) and those like Aral Balkan who advocate a post-plutocratic world order in which the internet is a global public good, not a corporate and state battlefield. As Balkan puts it:

About the author

Dr John Postill is Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne (2013-2016), and Digital Anthropology Fellow at University College London (UCL). His publications include Localizing the Internet (2011), Media and Nation Building (2006) and the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Practice (2010, with Birgit Bräuchler). Currently he is conducting anthropological research on new forms of digital activism and civic engagement in Indonesia, Spain and globally. He is also writing a book on the Spanish indignados (15M) movement and its recent political offshoots, as well as the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Change (with Elisenda Ardèvol and Sirpa Tenhunen).

Follow on Twitter: @JohnPostill

Back to Freedom technologists series…


Castells, M., Fernandez-Ardevol, M., Qiu, J. L., & Sey, A. (2009). Mobile communication and society: A global perspective. MIT Press.

Freeland, C. (2012) Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. London: Penguin.

MacKinnon, R. (2012). Consent of the networked: the world-wide struggle for Internet freedom. Basic Books.

Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here: The folly of technological solutionism. Public Affairs.

Postill, J. (2014a). A critical history of internet activism and social protest in Malaysia, 1998-2011. Asiascape: Digital Asia Journal 1-2: 78-103.

Postill, J. (2014b). Democracy in an age of viral reality: a media epidemiography of Spain’s indignados movement Ethnography 15 (1): 50-68.

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