Southeast Asia's rush to digitization


ASEAN countries are growing rapidly on the digital front, while at the same time trying to keep a tight rein on the Internet lives of their citizens

In the field of technology and digitization, various governments of ASEAN countries have two competing goals. On the one hand, they promote and support greater digitization, especially with a view to expanding their economies. "Keeping up with the times" from a digitization perspective is a basic requirement for these growing economies. On the other hand, however, there is a strong tendency of some governments in limiting the population's access to the Internet. 

Concrete demonstration of this behavior can be found in the example of Vietnam. Vietnam's economy is growing strongly; Vietnamese exports in the first quarter of 2022 grew by 12.9 percent over the past year. To sustain this strong growth, modernization of the country's digitization systems is needed. For this reason, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh last month had several meetings with representatives of companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook. In reality, the relationship between the Vietnamese government and these tech giants is far from simple and straightforward. Indeed, on the one hand, the Vietnam market is a great source of revenue for these tech companies. On the other hand, however, there are stakes that are often imposed on international digital companies and restrictions on access to digital platforms. 

According to journalist Lien Hoang in an article in Nikkei Asia, the same companies that Vietnamese Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính met with in Silicon Valley are lobbying in Vietnam to avoid further restrictions in the digital field. In fact, the Vietnamese administration would like to make even more stringent changes to Decree 72, which regulates the management, provision and use of Internet services, information and online games. The most stringent changes would be two. The first concerns the introduction of fines in case a content that is not considered suitable by the Vietnamese government is not blocked by online platforms within 24 hours. The second novelty would be to require companies to store data collected online in Vietnam within national borders. This measure would thus introduce a ban on transferring this data outside the state's borders. Hanoi is ready to do business with big tech companies but at the same time wants to maintain firm control over the digital lives of its citizens.

The issue of net freedom is not only present in Vietnam, but is a more generalized and relevant problem in other ASEAN countries. As can be seen from the chart below, many Southeast Asian countries do not score high in the degree of "internet freedom" (internet freedom). Myanmar ranks second to last among Asian countries with an internet freedom index of 17, only 7 points higher than China. In contrast, Vietnam earns an internet freedom index of 22 out of 100, representing the third-to-last country in Asia in terms of digital freedom. Thailand and Cambodia also do not achieve very high indices of their citizens' online freedom. On the other side is the Philippines with a score of 65 out of 100, which is thus rated as the country where citizens have the most freedom to freely use digital platforms. To have a yardstick for comparison, states such as Italy, France, Germany have an "internet freedom" index around 76-78 out of 100. In general, as stated by various experts, heavy restrictions in the context of digital platforms could in the future prove extremely counterproductive and contradictory to the goal of many ASEAN countries to develop digital economies. Therefore, it is likely that the issue of "internet freedom" will be of utmost importance to Southeast Asian countries in the coming years. 

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