AI and human rights

in Southeast Asia

Perspectives and recommendations

by Dr Jun-E Tan

What we will talk about

  • What is artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)?
  • What are human rights? What is the connection of AI and human rights?
  • AI governance for SEA
  • Recommendations and the way forward for civil society

Artificial intelligence

and machine learning

artificial intelligence (AI)

AI is “the study of devices that perceive their environment and define a course of action that will maximise its chance of achieving a given goal” (World Wide Web Foundation, 2017).

Machine learning (ML)

Instead of giving computers step-by-step instructions to solve a problem, the human programmer gives the computer instructions and rules to learn from the data provided. Based on inferences gained from the data, the computer then generates new rules to provide information and services. (Internet Society, 2017)

What can go wrong with
machine learning

  • Quality of training data: This is known as the “garbage in, garbage out” problem where even the best algorithms will give skewed outputs when the data that it trains on is biased.
  • System design: The human designers of the AI systems may incorporate their own values on the design, such as prioritising certain variables to be optimised, over others.
  • Complex interactions: The AI system may interact with its environment in a way that leads to unpredictable outcomes.

human rights

according to the udhr

Creator: Zen Pencils

economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR)

include: the rights to health, education, social security, proper labour conditions, quality of life, and participation in cultural life and creative activities.


Civil and political rights (CPR)

such as the right to life and self-determination, as well as individual freedoms of expression, religion, association, assembly, and so on.

These rights are often considered as positive rights, which require action to fulfil (such as providing opportunities for decent work).

Protecting civil and political rights require inaction (such as not restricting freedom of expression).

context of southeast asia

ai and escr

governments are interested in developmental benefits of ai

The ASEAN Smart Cities Network is a platform for 26 cities across ASEAN to work together towards the common goal of smart and sustainable urbanisation.

  • Civic and social
  • Health and well-being
  • Safety and security
  • Quality environment
  • Built infrastructure
  • Industry and innovation

however, government readiness for ai is uneven across the region

AI Government Readiness Index by Oxford Insights ranks country readiness for AI by four high-level clusters: governance; infrastructure and data; skills and education; and government and public services.

Singapore ranks as #1 and Timor Leste as #173.

Country (World Ranking) Score
Singapore (1) ~9.186
Malaysia (22) ~7.108
Philippines (50) ~5.704
Thailand (56) ~5.458
Indonesia (57) ~5.420
Vietnam (70) ~5.081
Brunei Darussalam (121) ~3.143
Cambodia (125) ~2.810
Laos (137) ~2.314
Myanmar (159) ~1.385
Timor Leste (173)


(Source: Oxford Insights, 2019)

internet access in southeast asia is also uneven

  • Internet penetration within Southeast Asia is about 60%, but is uneven across countries.
  • Lack of internet access means that many are not participating in data generation, even if they are affected by data-driven policies

good data is scarce in southeast asia

For example, only Indonesia and Philippines in Southeast Asia have adopted the Open Data Charter (as part of 30 governments in the world).

In 2017, the Open Data Barometer scored Philippines at 42 and Indonesia at 37 in their publishing and usage of open data for accountability, innovation and social impact.

(Source: Open Data Barometer, country report of Philippines)

digital divide and exclusion from datasets

"In a future where public policy and the marketplace will be shaped significantly by big data and the predictions it makes possible, the exclusion of poor and marginalized people has troubling implications: for economic opportunity, for social mobility, and even for equal citizenship. These technologies have the potential to create a new form of voicelessness, one in which the preferences and behaviors of poor and otherwise marginalized people receive little or no consideration when companies and governments make decisions, both large and small, about how public institutions and the marketplace should evolve." (Lerman, 2013)

escr benefits of ai for the region

  • What are our priorities in the usage of AI technologies, and what is the logic of implementation?

  • What are the pre-requisites to enjoying the benefits of AI?

  • Who benefits exactly from the usage of AI systems?

context of southeast asia

ai and CPR

governments tilt towards authoritarianism

The latest report from Civicus Monitor shows that none of the eleven countries in the region received a rating higher than “obstructed”. None of the eight countries assessed in the Freedom on the Net report by Freedom House (2018) obtained a “free” status in Internet freedom.

Image source: New Straits Times

governments engage in digital surveillance

Most countries within the region use two or more types of surveillance technologies in the form of smart/safe city implementations, facial recognition, and smart policing; and all of these countries use technologies imported from China, and to a lesser extent from the US as well.


Adapted from: AI Global Surveillance Index (AIGS 2019)

(with no data on Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Timor Leste)

governments engage in digital surveillance

  • Other forms of government surveillance include social media surveillance and using AI to collect and process personal data and metadata from social media platforms.
  • The Freedom on the Net (FOTN) Report (2019) states that 13 out of the 15 Asian countries that it covers have a social media surveillance programme in use or under development, but does not specify which.
  • The odds are high for these eight Southeast Asian countries covered in the report: Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.

disinformation campaigns and microtargetting

  • A report that tracks digital disinformation in the 2019 Philippine midterm election points out that Facebook Boosts (Facebook’s advertising mechanism) are essential for local campaigns because of their ability to reach specific geographical locations. Besides advertising the Facebook pages of official candidates, Facebook Boosts were also used to promote negative content about political opponents.
  • In Indonesia, ahead of the 2019 general elections, experts warned of voter behavioural targeting and voter microtargeting strategies which might exploit personal data of Indonesian voters to change election outcomes.

what is AI governance?

  • Making decisions and exercising authority on the development and diffusion of AI (adapted from the definition of technology governance by World Economic Forum (2019))
    • Who (is doing the governing?)
    • What (types of technology is being governed?)
    • When (does the governance occur?)
    • Where (are the governance mechanisms happening?)
    • How (or what mechanisms?)

Why? So that we can be more proactive when it comes to HR violations

challenges of ai governance in sea

  1. Focus of governance is on rapid adoption and innovation, rather than checks and balances
  2. Unclear use cases implicate on data governance
  3. International norms need to be adapted for local governance - e.g. GDPR
  4. SEA is under-represented in international standards setting
  5. SEA countries do not have a strong regional voice
  6. State capacity to govern AI technologies is low on average
  7. Meaningful public participation in AI governance is difficult - both from top-down, bottom-up perspectives


  1. Anchor AI governance in its societal and application contexts
  2. Build constitutionality around AI and data governance
  3. Consider multiple levels and sectors of policymaking
  4. Enable whole-of-society participation in AI governance

  5. Consider existing regulatory frameworks and processes that may be used for AI governance
  6. Focus on data governance to reduce AI harms and increase AI benefits

ways forward for civil society

  1. Increase awareness and participation of civil society in AI governance
  2. Build capacity to engage in AI governance (on AI, and on governance processes)
  3. Form strategic networks and collaborations
  4. Conduct more advocacy-based research and documentation on AI applications in SEA
  5. Leverage on existing capacities on human rights and community work

Thank you :)

AI and Human Rights in SEA: Perspectives and Recommendations

By Jun-E Tan

AI and Human Rights in SEA: Perspectives and Recommendations

This talk was presented in a discussion session titled "Does AI Violate Human Rights?" organised by the Centre for Digital Society (CfDS), Indonesia.

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