Southeast Asia’s internet economy is projected to add US$ 1 trillion to the regional gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030. Moreover, the accelerated pace of internet penetration in Southeast Asia over the recent past has propelled it to be the second fastest growing region in the world. With the promise shown by tech, the economic growth of the SEA region significantly rides on unlocking the full potential of the digital ecosystem.
The dynamism of the digital sector has not been without its downsides, leading to an increased demand to safeguard users better from the unintended consequences of technology. As countries all over the world grapple with how to best govern this rapidly changing ecosystem, Australian National University’s Tech Policy Design Center (TPDC) recent work on “Tending the Tech Ecosystem” was timely.
This work was complemented by Tech for Good Institute (TFGI)’s mapping of Southeast Asia’s tech regulators, demonstrating the diversity of models and stakeholders across Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
- Dr Johanna Weaver, Director, Tech Policy Design Center
- Dr Ming Tan, Executive Director, Tech for Good Institute
- Ms Ahdiyana Tengku, Research Associate, Tech for Good Institute
Key insights from the discussion:
- Southeast Asia is a diverse market with differing needs and priorities. While the region as a whole is a fast growing digital economy, policy stakeholders need to be cautious when treating it as a single market when crafting tech policy regulations. Every jurisdiction has its own priorities, pressures and processes. Southeast Asian economies are also at different stages of developing, implementing and updating technology policies.
- Experts generally agree that having a single super-tech regulator may not be efficient. TPDC’s interviews with stakeholders (government, civil society and private sector representatives, primarily in Australia) revealed that rather than having a super-tech regulator, upskilling existing regulators to understand technology and its business models is an effective way to regulate the digital space. Key stakeholders during the consultation also expressed some concerns on having a super regulator. While having a super-tech regulator would ensure coherence of policies, it could also lead to overlaps with other ‘non-tech bodies’. For example, issues related to anticompetitive practices in the digital realm could come under the purview of a super-tech regulator as well as the conventional competition regulator. In the absence of proper coordination channels, this could further complicate the operating environment of market players in the digital economy.
- Regulation coordination among different entities is highly essential. Even though having multiple regulators has largely been the most efficient way to regulate the digital space, TPDC’s research findings suggest that there is a need for clear delineation of duties coupled with proper coordination amongst the different entities. An example of a good in-practice model of coordination in digital regulation is the UK Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum. The body provides a platform for coordination among relevant regulators who implement the policies. However, a gap in the model is the lack of coordination of these regulators with policymakers who design these policies. The Tech Policy and Regulation Coordination Model as proposed by TPDC tries to address this by designing for better coordination among different entities at multiple levels of governance.
- Thailand provides an interesting case study of bringing everything under one Ministry. While responsibility for different aspects of tech regulation falls to different ministries in Southeast Asia, Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society offers a useful counterpoint. To support the promotion and development of a digital economy within a safe and inclusive society, the Ministry oversees a multitude of areas such as personal data protection, communication, computer crime, digital economy promotion and electronic transactions.
- Encouraging different voices in the regulatory process. An effective way to achieve coordination between different stakeholders is to promote non-adversarial forums for academia, civil society, industries, and other stakeholders in order to have meaningful consultations. For this to be effective, incentives for participation in these conversations should be clear. The TPDC report recommends that industries or consumers are able to see a direct impact of these consultations on policies and regulations. In addition, monetary compensation can be offered for experts from civil society organizations who lend their expertise and help shape governments’ understanding of the tech ecosystem. While the latter was preferred in conversations with Australian stakeholders, stakeholders in the research consultation noted that there should be a cautious approach to monetary incentives in Southeast Asia, as this could be seen as a tool for co-opting with the government agencies.
- A regional coordinator in Southeast Asia would be helpful to build common standards and advocate for greater accountability. In the international discourse on tech regulation, individual requirements of smaller jurisdictions in Southeast Asia could potentially get undermined. In such a scenario, a regional coordinator in ASEAN not only helps in advocating for better practices among tech companies (especially Big Tech), but also ensures there is innovative thinking on tech regulation through shared perspectives and knowledge. Knowledge sharing and coordination within ASEAN can better facilitate an outcomes-focused regulatory toolkit by building on each country’s expertise and best practices. This model can also serve as an example for other regions to unlock the best of technology while safeguarding its population.