Civil society and Internet Governance: practices from Southeast Asia and beyond

October 31, 2013

On 21 October, the day before the opening of the 2013 Internet Governance Forum in Indonesia, Hivos’ Southeast Asia Regional Office co-organised a pre-event workshop with ID-CONFIG, “Civil Society and Internet Governance: Multi-Stakeholder Engagement Practices from Southeast Asia and Beyond,” at the Bali Nusa Dua Convention Centre.

Recognising that the IGF has been a global project for the past eight years, the workshop provided a critical perspective to the forum’s impact on local civil society organisations. In the past, the IGF has been criticised for focusing on policy-level IG debates that lack grassroots, on-the-ground applications. Additionally, it is has been challenged to demonstrate the relevance of IG policies for civil society organisations, which frequently have limited understanding of and involvement in the issue.

By drawing empirical case studies from different regions of Asia, the aim of the workshop was to help civil society organisations find a relevant role in IG and explore how IG frameworks with a focus on the role of civil society can be applied in developing regions to uphold the right of citizens to express themselves through the Internet.

Five speakers discussed the intersections between Internet Freedom and Internet Governance: Arthit Suriyawongkul (Thai Netizen Network, Thailand), Shahzad Ahmad (Bytes 4 All, Pakistan), Donny Budhi Utoyo (ICTWatch, Indonesia), Lobsang Gyatso Sither (Tibet Action Institute), and Pranesh Prakash (Center for Internet and Society, India). Attended by approximately 70 participants, the discussions revolved around the varying feasibility of a multi-stakeholder platform in different political contexts.

The speakers represent civil society organisations in vastly different political environments in South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia. They all continuously pointed out how emerging democratic movements are often counterbalanced by political power concentrated in existing state institutions. In such state-centric Internet Governance contexts, civil society organisations are often pitted against official censorship and filtering attempts. While speakers from relatively more democratic countries, namely India and Indonesia, showcased examples of how civil society organisations have engaged the government in Internet policy-making, those from Thailand and Pakistan illustrated the need for a strong litigation capacity for public interests in order to defend citizens from state infringement of their rights. At the other end of the spectrum, Gyatso Sither emphasised the importance of safeguarding Tibetan activists in the homeland and in the diaspora from surveillance by the Chinese state, whose latest strategies have included interceptions, targeted malware, and cyber attacks.

Nonetheless, civil society organisations are uniquely placed to engage both government agencies, as providers of regulatory frameworks, and the private sector, as the primary provider of ICT infrastructure, to demand equitable access to the Internet and maintain the freedom to expression online. Through an ideal multi-stakeholder framework, civil society organisations can empower communities by strategically using ICT to uphold transparency and accountability.