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									                                               Report on the

 First Regional Conference for the Asia and Pacific Region on the Ethical Dimensions of the Information

Peter Malcouronne
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In December 2003, the United Nations’ inaugural World Summit on Information Systems (WSIS)
convened in Geneva. This meeting’s Declaration of Principles, drafted by representatives from
175 member states, included such laudable sentiments as this:

           Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of
           all social organisation. It is central to the Information Society. Everyone, everywhere,
           should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits
           the Information Society offers.

Further, the Declaration recognised the common desire and commitment of the peoples of the
world: –

           To build a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society where
           everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge, enabling
           individuals, communities and peoples to achieve their full potential in promoting their
           sustainable development and improving their quality of life.

These are fine words – as with other UN initiatives, the challenge is how to put them into
practice. And so several more WSIS meetings convened, the process winding up in Tunis in
November 2005, where UNESCO was charged with – and please don’t be deterred by the
bureaucratese – “co-ordinating the implementation of several Action Lines of the Geneva Action
Plan”. Action Line C10, which underscores the importance of ethics in a truly inclusive
information society, is the one we’re concerned with here.

So. To more meetings. In accordance with the Tunis Agenda, UNESCO organised a series of
regional workshops on Information Society ethics. This conference, the (grandly-titled) First
Regional Conference for Asia and Pacific Region on the Ethical Dimensions of the Information
Society was the fourth of five: meetings had already been held by Europe, Latin America and
The Caribbean and Africa; a fifth meeting canvassing the views of Arab states will take place
later in the year.

The conference started on Wednesday, March 12 and was scheduled to run for three days.
However, the hosts wrapped things up early and spent Friday afternoon showing us the sights
of Ha Noi town.

Delegates from Afghanistan, Australia, Bhutan, Cambodia, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar,
Nepal, New Zealand, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand and host nation Viet Nam were
in attendance.
Our Region

The Asia-Pacific region throws up some formidable challenges. First, there is the geographic
immensity of a region ranging from Novaya Zemlya in the north to New Zealand in the south.
The world’s largest country (Russia) straddles the top of our region; its smallest island state
(Nauru) nestles in the Pacific. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s people live within our 48 states:
our region has the world’s most populous country (China), but only the Vatican has fewer
people than Tuvalu.

Ethnic diversity in the Asia Pacific region is unequalled. We have hundreds of millions of
Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Shinto, Sikh and Buddhists; we live under feudal kings, socialist
prophets and capitalist roaders. Our differences pose unique regional challenges to reaching a
consensus on Information Society Ethics.

Would we be able to reach a consensus amongst ourselves? And if we did so, the concerns of our
region are likely to be very different to those, say, of Europe. Indeed is a meaningful
International Code of Ethics possible, even desirable?

Note: The conference was not representative. There were no delegates from China, India, Indonesia
or Korea who, collectively, constitute three-quarters of our region’s population. And there was no
one from Russia either (Delegates weren’t sure if Russia is part of the Asia-Pacific region – the
UNESCO website suggests it is). Nor were any Pacific Island countries present.

The Conference’s Aims

In her opening address, UNESCO’s Deputy Assistant Director-General (Communication and
Information) Miriam Nisbet stressed the importance of ‘Building Knowledge Societies’. Said Ms
Nisbet, “the ability to generate, access and apply knowledge is [crucial for] boosting social and
economic development worldwide.”

However, the Knowledge Society has to be more than merely a slogan. And Ms Nisbet reminded
the meeting that their imminent arrival was not a given: “Knowledge societies require an
empowering social vision which encompasses plurality, inclusion, solidarity and participation.”
And here we are taken into the realm of info-ethics.

Ms Nisbet outlined the following objectives for the conference.

   1. To identify the priorities of the Asia-Pacific region in the info-ethics realm.
   2. To raise awareness of the ethical, legal and socio-economic dimensions of information
      and communication technologies. (Inform participants of UNESCO’s role in promoting
      an inclusive and ethical Information Society.)
   3. To create a regional network of experts in this field that would facilitate regional and
      inter-regional co-operation within info-ethics.
   4. To draft an action plan to contribute to the World Summit on Action Line C10 on the
      Ethical Dimensions of the Information Society (possibly a Declaration or a set of
   5. To provide concrete suggestions for improving UNESCO’s current draft Code of Ethics.
   6.                   To further UNESCO’s mission to ensure sustainable development, peace
        and progress.

The Conference Agenda

To facilitate the discussion, Ms Nisbet suggested splitting the agenda into three thematic

   1. Access. Access to knowledge. Ensuring citizens have ready access to ICTs is at the heart
      of any inclusive Information Society.
   2. Freedom of Expression. Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of emerging
      information societies.
   3. Privacy and Security. Issues relating to privacy and security hang over us all. UNESCO
      is determined to protect both the privacy and dignity rights to which every citizen is
      entitled (and which are well established in national and international law).

This report will give a general speaker-by-speaker account of each theme, then summarise the
conversation, thoughts and recommendations that arose from these.

Theme One: Universal access to information (access to ICTs is critical to building
knowledge societies).

Of the three themes, this was the most important to the majority of delegates.

To put the theme very crudely: what use are $100 laptops if there is no power to charge their
batteries, no software to run them, no teachers to show people how they work? Moreover, a nice
computer doesn’t come with a home to use it in, or allow its users sufficient leisure/spare time
to enjoy it.

Chair Rhonda Breit opened this session by acknowledging the diversity of values within the
conference – each of us come from different political, social and philosophical positions. That
said, Ms Breit said she thought we’d all agree on the desirability of free and unfettered access to
information (and, by extension, ICTs). So a key question for the conference became ‘How,
exactly, do we propose to bring about universal access to ICTs?’

Three speakers presented papers: Mr Ramon R. Tuazon, President of the Asian Institute of
Journalism and Communication (Philippines); Mr Mohammad M. Aboutabeli, Vice-President of
IRIB for Education and Research (Islamic Republic of Iran); and Mr Pham Hong Hai, Director
General, Telecommunications Department, Ministry of Information and Communication
(Socialist Republic of Viet Nam).

Mr Tuazon reminded the meeting that access to information was a right enshrined in Article 19
of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

        Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; This right includes freedom
        to hold opinions without inference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas
        through any media and regardless of frontier.
Mr Tuazon added that universal access to information facilitates at least three of the six Human
Rights Principles, namely Participation and Inclusion, Accountability and the Rule of Law and
Non-Discrimination and Equality. The first of these is particularly relevant to this discussion:

        Every person and all peoples are entitled to active, free and meaningful participation in,
        contribution to, and the enjoyment of civil, economic, social, cultural and political
        development in which human rights and fundamental freedoms can be realised.

But good intentions are not enough. Citing Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Mr Tuazon suggested
we are again living in two worlds: “The divide is not only economic, it is cultural, religious and
political. And there’s a knowledge divide that threatens to prevent people from attaining their
fullest potential as human beings.”

This knowledge divide, Mr Tuazon continued, was a consequence of the digital divide, defined
by ICT expert Dr William Torres as: –

        The difference (1) in access to information through the Internet and to other information
        technologies and services and (2) in the skills, knowledge and abilities to use information,
        the internet and other technologies.

Iran’s Mr Aboutabeli shared Mr Tuazon’s concerns, suggesting we strive towards an
“information-balanced” society where the “information divide” can be overcome. The question
of information equity, Mr Aboutabeli continued, must be at the centre of all ethical discussion:
“This is not a technological problem. It cannot be solved by providing everyone in the world
with a computer.”

What, he asked, can UNESCO do to prevent modern societies from being divided into the
information elite (haves) and the information underprivileged (have nots)?

But how serious is the problem – how large is the knowledge divide? Several delegates provided
stats that, depending on whether you take a glass-half-full or half-empty line, give rise for
optimism or despair. Many delegates were proud of their own country’s efforts to close the
knowledge divide (in relation to the rest of the world), yet in some instances this appears to be

Here a few case studies from within our region.

Malaysia’s Zuraidah Abdul Aziz noted her country’s internet penetration of 52 per cent was the
highest in South-East Asia. However, Asia’s overall internet penetration of 13.7 per cent was
well below that of North America (71 per cent), Europe (65 per cent) and the Middle East (17.4
per cent) – and above only Africa (4.7 per cent).

The situation in the Philippines is perhaps more typical of our region. Personal computer
penetration is low – just 1.9 for every 100 persons – and Yahoo estimates 19 per cent of the
population will be internet users in 2008 (up from 14 per cent in 2007). However, Mr Tuazon
contended mobile phones would be the “digital bridge that will reduce the connectivity divide
as it serves as the principal gateway to increased access by developing countries”. While the
Philippines has a low landline telephone density of 7.7 for every 100 people, it’s also known as
the text capital of the world – 300 million SMS messages are sent each day.
The extraordinary growth of mobile phone technology – and networks – can be seen throughout
our region. In Malaysia (pop. 28 million), mobile phone subscribers have quadrupled from 22
per cent in 2000 to 80 per cent today.

The increase is even more marked in Viet Nam. The theme’s third speaker Mr Pham Hong Hai
noted Viet Nam’s telephone penetration is now 45.9 per cent (11.7 per cent fixed; 34 per cent
mobile), a remarkable increase from a decade ago when it was just two per cent. In the years
1995-2005, total mobile phone subscribers increased to 8 million – an average of 800,000 per
year. However, in 2006 another 10 million signed up. In 2007 there were a further 17 million

While total internet users in Viet Nam are a relatively low 18.9 per cent of the population, Mr
Hai noted internet users doubled each year through 2000-2006.

So much for the glass half-full analysis. Mr Tuazon pointed out that internet penetration in
developed economies is 10 times higher than in developing economies (up from six times in
2006). And the welcome increase in Filipino internet users – as projected by Yahoo – is
disproportionately those of middle and upper incomes; the poor, especially in rural areas, have
limited access to ICTs.

Moreover, we must be mindful of the difference between broadband penetration and
broadband uptake. China, for instance, has broadband coverage of 62 per cent, but only 3.9 per
cent uptake. While some Asian countries, namely South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have a
broadband uptake rate above the developed country average of 18.4 per cent, 19 countries in
the Asia-Pacific region have uptake rates of less than one percent.

Further, while developing countries make up 58 per cent of the world’s mobile phone
subscribers – and developing Asia is second only to Africa in terms of the highest growth of
mobile phone users and penetration – there are still 40 countries with mobile phone
penetration of less than 10 per cent.

So a fascinating – if challenging – contribution from our three speakers. In the ensuing
discussion, two broad themes around access emerged. I have categorised these as:

   1. Issues of Physical Access – Bringing ICTs to our people.
   2. Issues of Meaningful Access – Helping our people make best use of ICTs.

Issues of Physical Access

A significant majority of people in our region are excluded from the Information Society on
account of their socio-economic status, gender, geography (the lack of access in rural and
sparsely populated areas), culture, ethnicity and political beliefs. Closing this “information
divide” by providing our people with the means to access – and participate in – the Information
Society is our region’s most urgent priority.

   1. State support for ICT infrastructure development: The conference recognised the
      need for states/national governments to be a major driver in ICT infrastructural
      development. Many ICT infrastructural developments require a capital investment over
      several decades – this is unlikely to appeal to private entities requiring a more
      immediate return on their investment. Moreover, the first priority of private enterprise
        is maximising the return for its shareholders – issues such as equality of access are not
        typically a concern. And so governments, one delegate argued, must take charge in
        places – “the midlands, mountainous areas, high seas etc” – where the market
        mechanism doesn’t work. Governments must take care of minorities, the disabled and
        disadvantaged, not only to ensure their human rights, but also to allow these people to
        develop to their full potential in the Information Society.
   2.   Public/private partnerships: Nevertheless, the state cannot do everything on its own.
        And so we encourage responsible private sector and state partnership in infrastructure
        development. But while privately-funded initiatives will inevitably be profit-driven
        (with the attendant efficiencies and unfairness that result from this), we believe the time
        has come for far greater corporate responsibility (the precept that “those who profit
        should give a bit back”). Which models are available to help us find a fair compromise
        between returns on investment – reasonable profit – and public interest?
   3.   UNESCO’s role: Further to this, we recognise UNESCO’s resources – its ability to help
        “on the ground” – are limited. How can UNESCO encourage sponsorship or assistance
        from private companies? Incentives or moral pressure – an appeal to private company’s
        ‘better side’ – might encourage some to provide subsidised infrastructure (networks,
        telephone lines, servers) and hardware to remote, rural and poor areas.
   4.   Foreign Assistance: Developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region welcome the
        assistance of developed countries in the financing and construction of ICT
        infrastructure. However, it is important that this assistance is fairly given: the
        conference considered the practice of “tied aid” – “We will help you, but only on our
        terms (and only if you contract our companies)” to be unethical and exploitative.
   5.   Transparency: Further to this, the practice of “tied aid” undermines transparency –
        how governments deal with the development of ICT infrastructure (awarding of
        contracts etc) and then its operation.
   6.   Realistic Goals: Since many of the member countries have extremely limited resources,
        we must be realistic as to what can be accomplished in the short/medium term. A
        computer in every home – indeed a home for every family – is out of reach for many of
        our people. But we strongly support the establishment of public access e-
        centres/libraries/internet cafes etc, especially in remote/rural/poor areas. It was noted
        that several member countries are already undertaking impressive work in this area
        (examples include the 190-plus smart communities in Malaysia; the e-centres in remote
        communities in the Philippines; the ‘Computer Centre in Every Village Project’
        [Thailand]; and the Village Post Office Cultural Centres [Viet Nam]). Conference
        delegates were encouraged to network and study these initiatives. And UNESCO was
        urged to offer support to existing libraries.

Issues of Meaningful Access

   1.                             Teachers/Education: The Conference recognised the
        immense challenge of trying to vault from (in some instances) subsistence societies to
        fully-functioning Information Societies. An emphasis on media literacy – empowering
        citizens through education and access to relevant information – must accompany
        infrastructural improvements. How do you do this? The conference recognised the
        importance of training teachers (“Educating the Educators”) etc. But how to fund this?
2. Multilingualism: A huge issue for the Asia-Pacific region is that of language – the need
   for a multilingual internet. UNESCO consultant Peter Uhlir warns that one of the greatest
   barriers to the use of available information is language; 90 per cent of internet content is
   in English which has effectively marginalised non-English speaking countries and
   individuals. Said Uhlir: “A user’s language should not constitute an obstacle to
   addressing the multicultural human heritage available through the Internet and other
   communication media. Harmonious development of knowledge societies and economies
   is thus promoted by the availability of multilingual and multicultural information.” This
   issue is also highlighted in the WSIS Declaration of Principles, which states: “The
   creation, dissemination and preservation of content in diverse languages and formats
   must be accorded high priority in building an inclusive information society.” As a
   delegate noted, if you cannot access the internet because of language barriers, then any
   infrastructural improvements – improved broadband penetration rates etc – become
   irrelevant. For our region, with a population of several billion people speaking 5000-
   plus languages, the issue is particularly pressing.
3. Multilingualism and UNESCO: Multilingualism, especially on the internet is a priority
   for UNESCO (see the snappily-titled “Recommendation Concerning the Promotion of Use
   of Multilingualism and Universal Access to Cyberspace” adopted at the 2003 General
   Conference). UNESCO’s Miriam Nisbet reiterated it is a priority “right from the very top
   line” (i.e. the domain name). She said UNESCO is currently working alongside the
   International Telecommunications Union and ICAN on a pilot project testing domain
   name accessibility in 11 scripts (including Arabic, Hindu and Cyrillic). Hopefully, this
   will lead the way to additional scripts and languages – delegates will monitor this
3. Multilingualism within member countries: We would encourage governments from
   our region to make content on their official government sites available in as many
   minority languages as possible. In some countries, it’s possible they might be reluctant
   to do so for fear of fuelling separatist movements or agendas. It is our contention that
   recognising the languages of minority and indigenous groups within countries is in fact
   an inclusive measure and, therefore, in a state’s best interest.
4. Oral languages: In remote areas within our region, there are oral-only languages. The
   possibility of recording/storing/using these languages within audio files is a prospect
   delegates found exciting – they see this as something to be explored urgently.
5. Media literacy: With improved levels of media literary – improved literacy full stop –
   we come closer to the dream of a truly interactive Information Society. There’s still a
   long way to go. As Iran’s M. M. Aboutalebi stressed: “We need to foster media
   competence enabling everyone to read, write and work in cyberspace.” How, he asked,
   “do we move from passive (reading) societies to active (writing) societies?”
6. Intellectual Property Rights: The conference noted copyright is frequently asserted
   over public sector/domain information. Since this information is created and funded by
   governments – and by extension, their people – it should be made freely available to
   citizens. We encourage governments of member states to consider what should be
   included in national information policies (and made freely available to their citizens).
   This would include health information, environmental information etc – all information
   essential to peoples’ lives and wellbeing.
7. Selective (and hypocritical) assertion of Intellectual Property Rights: One of the
   chief concerns of Mr Tuazon’s paper concerned intellectual property rights and fair use.
         Mr Tuazon quoted social critic Robert Verzola (2007): “Advanced countries think
         nothing of pirating our best scientists, engineers, technicians and other professionals.
         They patent or copyright the works of these intellectuals and then sell them back to us
         at high prices. They also pirate our genetic resources. Their scientists roam the world
         pirating biodiversity resources like microorganisms, plants and animals and even
         human DNA. They claim monopoly ownership over the genetic information they extract,
         patent them and sell them back to us at high prices.” Concluded Verzola: “Information
         acquisition has been defined so that when it is bad for the interests of the US and
         advanced countries but good for developing countries it is called “piracy” and
         “freeloading”, but when it is good for the interests of advanced countries and bad for
         developing economies it falls under the labels like “free flow of information” and
         “common heritage of mankind.”
   8.    The Globalised Public Domain: Delegates argued that our people must have ready
         access to global information resources. Viet Nam’s Pham Hong Hai put this neatly: “Rich
         information countries should be willing to add their information–rich resources to the
         global public domain” to allow peoples from developing countries access to information.
         Could, Mr Pham asked, “we consider these are the legacies from the creative process of
         humanity, created to serve humankind, with an ultimate goal of enabling an inclusive
         Information Society?”
   9.    Content creation: Since most internet content is in English, most of it is still produced
         by the English-speaking countries. However, this is rapidly changing; Thailand’s Soraj
         Hongladarom noting, for instance, the explosion of Web 2.0 (social networking) sites in
         his country. Once technical problems with Thai script are resolved Mr Hongladarom
         foresees an explosion in content creation. But while most delegates look forward to this,
         a number expressed concern about the desirability/quality of this new material.
   10.   Info-ethics education: Concern was expressed that these eager new participants could
         be exploited or victimised online. The new freedoms must be accompanied by info-
         ethics education (this is discussed further in our third thematic discussion).
   11.   Regulation and Control: Several delegates were concerned with how they could
         promote “responsible” content production and block inappropriate content. While
         censorship or regulation was anathema to the early Internet pioneers, many of our
         member states want to control what their citizens read and do. How do we develop – to
         coin a clunky corporatism – “Best Practice Indicators” for regulators? How might we
         assist regulators? (this is developed further in our second thematic discussion).
   12.   Political Participation: ICTs have the potential to inform/educate citizens and enable
         them to participate more fully in the political process of their countries. However, not all
         countries in our region have an established democratic tradition (at least not of the
         Western representative model). Some states – and China’s “Great Firewall” is a good
         example – are not prepared to allow information-sharing that the government deems
         harmful to national security and unity. Again, this is discussed further in the second

Theme Two – Focusing on Freedom of Expression and Communications (the
ethical issues of empowering citizens through ICT; the emergence of new types of social
relations, rights and responsibilities; and the creation and dissemination of content on
the Internet)

The diverse nature of our region – our disparate ideological traditions – was particularly
evident during this session. Our member countries have very different conceptions of freedom
of expression – as one delegate noted, “We are geographically proximate, but philosophically

Some member states draw from the Western liberal tradition, others from a communitarian
tradition where there is a greater emphasis on the community – the collective good – than the
rights of the individual. This session commenced with an acknowledgment of the differences
between the member countries – and cultures – and asked: ‘How do we accommodate these
differences? How do we bridge this ideological divide?’

Papers were presented by Ms Rhonda Breit, Senior Lecturer in Media Law and Ethics, School of
Journalism and Communication, University of Queensland (Australia); Malaysia’s Mrs Zuraidah
Abdul Aziz, Director of International Relations, Department of Information (Malaysia) and Mr
Zaharom Nain, Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia.

In her paper, Rhonda Breit cited The Pew Centre’s Global Attitude Survey (2007) that found
that in both developed and developing countries “basic human needs – the desire to be free
from hunger, poverty, crime and violence – are as important as political rights and freedoms
(and often more important). Nevertheless, Ms Breit averred, this does not diminish the
importance of freedom of speech as a fundamental human right. “States must refrain from
interfering in individuals’ rights to free speech. And they should take positive steps to remove
obstacles to free expression, for instance preventing monopolisation of the media and
encouraging minority voices in the media.”

But what, exactly, does free speech mean? Ms Breit noted different communities give different
values to freedom of expression – “for instance, my home country Australia emphasises equality
of opportunity when interpreting speech rights, as opposed to the US emphasis on liberty.”

So an important question for us to ask is in whose authority should interpretation of speech
rights be vested? Traditionally, Ms Breit continued, speech rights have been interpreted by
either the legislature or the judiciary. But she suggested devolving the interpretation of speech
rights to what she called “multi-stakeholder” partnerships (which might include
parliamentarians and policy makers, official and unofficial community representatives,
grassroots organisations, consumers and consumer groups, end-users and beneficiaries, the
media, academics and researchers, industry associations, ICT reps, development agencies etc).

Malaysia’s Zaharom Nain, warned of the perils of “Problematising Asia” – a region he said was
“uneven terrain” in its (1) Political practices and political maturity; (2) Economic development;
and (3) State control over communications systems and use.

He quoted Filipino journalist Amando Doronila (2000): “In Asia, one cannot talk about
democracy or freedom of the press without qualifications... one cannot assume these twin
notions take the same focus in Asia as in North American and Western European democracies.”
Asia, Mr Nain maintained, was “not a homogenous entity? We need to ask: what sort of social
structure exists? Whose (political/cultural/gender/communal) interests are being advanced?
Are these strategies democratic? Who controls the domestic communications systems? Who
owns them?”

Mr Nain seemed wary of globalisation, at least the version that’s playing out across the Asia-
Pacific region. Quoting Curran and Park (2000): “Globalisation is not new. Unfettered global
capitalism has merely been restored and the power of the people to curb its excesses has been

“The rise of communications giants as a political lobby and the spread of neo-liberal ideas have
also led to deregulatory broadcasting policies. These have contributed to the marketisation of
some public service organisation and a decline in their corporate sense of purpose.
Increasingly... the forces of commercial globalisation are encroaching upon and undermining
publicly owned and regulated broadcasting media.”

If the new global oligarch model is anti-democratic and, in freedom of expression terms at least,
ultimately corrosive, what asked Mr Nain is the best counter? The state? Mr Nain thinks not: the
1970-80s NWICO failed dismally, he said, the State using the power to reinforce its grip. Is the
market the solution? Mr Nain noted that the Alma Ata Declaration of the 1990s has created
numerous problems.

Instead, Mr Nain believes a public service model affords the greatest opportunity for free
expression (and also public access to information). But is it politically possible?

If Mr Nain was a champion of unbridled information freedom, then his countrywoman, Mrs
Zuraidah Abdul Aziz, was more cautious, presenting an interesting argument for constraining
free expression.

“Malaysia, with its history of politico-cultural sensitivities, interracial suspicion, exacerbated by
religious and cultural difference, necessitates the need for governance to control threats to the
national security. The government views the fragile racial mix – 60 per cent are of
Malaysian/indigenous descent, 25 per cent Chinese, 10 per cent Indians –warrants the
restraining of critical public discourse on race issues, religion, special rights of the Bumiputras
and the national language.”

Freedom of speech, Ms Aziz argued, can be divisive. “Unsanctioned news/information on news
sites, hate messages/speeches including instilling hatred for the government, seditious writings
and email advocating religious dissent and defamatory messages on the internet are deemed
undesirable and potentially threaten national security. Though the government has declared no
censorship on the Internet, legal mechanisms to protect the public against these risks are in
place. Public debates are curbed by the Internal Security and the Sedition Act.”

While “Malaysia’s constitution guarantees every citizen the right of free speech and expression
[it also] also sets significant limitations on that freedom as Parliament may, by law, effect ‘such
restrictions [on free speech] as it deems necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of
the Federation.”

Ms Aziz noted there is concern in Malaysia about undesirable material, especially on the
Internet. Hence the Content Code, drafted by the Content Forum, an industry body representing
relevant sectors of the communications and multimedia industry. “The Code seeks to identify
what is regarded as offensive and objectionable while spelling out the obligations of content
providers within the context of social values in this country.” The code, Ms Malaysia averred
(somewhat to Mr Nain’s amusement) was drafted by the ICT industry “with no interference
from the government”.

Though some delegates – Mr Nain chief among them – advocated far greater participation
within this debate by citizens, Ms Aziz contended “the general public in Malaysia has shown
little interest to debate or discuss freedom of speech on the internet. Some have suggested the
people’s priority is in their socioeconomic wellbeing, rather than political rights and

Needless to say, a lively discussion ensued. Thailand’s Mr Soraj Hongladarom pointed out his
country’s Ministry of Information and Communication have the authority to shut down a
website [and server] if they deem the content of a website is contrary to national security or
public morality. If the server is located in Thailand, they’ll face criminal charges.

The delegate from Bhutan said the Internet came to her country relatively recently (1999). As
Bhutan is a fledging democracy (with its first ever democratic elections held just days before the
conference) government workers (and agencies) were uncertain as to what limits there should
be to freedom of speech. The job of a regulator is not easy – it would be helpful, she said, if there
were some international guidelines.

Singapore’s delegate mentioned that his country block one hundred pornographic sites, purely
for symbolic reasons. He says the rationale behind this is that his Government believes these are
undesirable sites – and wants to convey this message to the people – but it is not for us to “play

It is a very different story in Cambodia. Before the Government will register a com.ka domain
name (which is then registered at the Ministry of Information), they must first approve the full
content of their sites. Said a Cambodian delegate, “It allows us to have a good control on these

While there was disagreement among delegates as to the limits on freedom of expression (and
who might be empowered to determine/enforce these) they agreed to the following resolutions.
That the Conference:

    1. Encourage states to promote freedom of expression. The right of access to
       information is enshrined in Article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights
       (1948). Article 19 also notes that the exercise of these rights carries with it special
       duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to restrictions, such as are
       provided by law and are necessary for the respect of the rights or reputations of others;
       and for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health and
       morals. Conference delegates recognised freedom of expression is a value in and of
       itself, but that it also gives effect to other rights such as access to education, freedom of
       religion, freedom of movement etc.
    2. Recognise the Sovereignty of Nation States. Several delegates stressed the fact that
       UN Declarations must not cut across national sovereignty. The meeting acknowledged
       that our member states have differing interpretations of speech rights. Nevertheless,
      UNESCO’s Miriam Nisbet stressed that UNESCO would not support overt censorship: “it
      would be difficult for us to move forward on anything that clamps down on freedom of
      expression... UNESCO would not support an international law that would support
3.    Encourage research into how nation-states in our region prioritise freedom of
      expression across the region. A simple and uncontroversial notion – but how do we
      propose to do this?
4.    Urge states to act against the monopolisation of the media. Countries in our region
      with advanced infrastructure and deep internet penetration (and a seemingly free
      press) are now battling media ownership concentration. A decade ago this led to an
      increasingly “sensationalisation” of the news agenda; these days, the picture is of a
      “blanding” of media – the elevation of the ephemeral over the important, with greater
      emphasis given to “lifestyle” stories. This has obvious consequences for freedom of
      expression: those who own the means of expression possess a much louder ‘voice’ than
      ordinary citizens. The hope is that ICTs may give ordinary citizens their voice back and
      fragment the power of media monopolies.
5.    Explores alternative communication models that address public interests. One
      suggestion was to explore a public communications model similar to the Public
      Broadcasting Service (PBS Thailand), the BBC and ABC (Australia). The question here
      becomes... how do we devise a model that is independent of government and corporate
      interests (but yet has secure funding sources)? The conference noted the difficulties
      associated with developing independent communication models, though encouraged
      participants to think/research/investigate meaningful alternatives to the current
      communication regimes.
6.    Develops a Regional Collaborative Research Network. Conference delegates were
      keen to set up an informal network for ongoing exploration of information society
7.    Acknowledges ICTs can be both beneficial and harmful. Understandably, the
      conference was keen to encourage the former and counter the latter. Delegates were
      especially keen to encourage the development of ICTs to address particular needs,
      namely the knowledge divides that occur among the poor, the disadvantaged, the
      young/old, minorities and gender.
8.    Promote education in ethics. Particularly among ICT users, developers, producers and
9.    Assist regulators in “policing” the internet. The idea that governments have a right
      (and duty) to protect the moral space in cyberspace was one of the more controversial
      subjects of our discussion. Several delegates expressed interest in somehow “regulating
      the regulators” – providing them with “best practice indicators” to try and thwart
      unnecessary/excessive censorship.
10.   Encourages the use of ICTs for the development of community- relevant
      information. Promotes access to information and responsible use and production of
      information (As noted in the previous section, delegates stressed the need for the
      Information Society to be multilingual).
Theme Three – Privacy, Security, Identity and Control of Networks (the
ethical issues relating to good governance, to confidentiality and protection of personal
data, to the collective dimension of freedom and the surveillance of the individual).

Our member states’ divergent views again came to the fore during the discussion of the ethics of
privacy, security and surveillance.

Three speakers presented papers: Mr Soraj Hongladarom, Director of Chulalongkorn
University’s Centre for Ethics of Science and Technology (Thailand); Mr Makoto Nakada from
the University of Tsukuba’s Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences (Japan); and
Australia’s Mr John Weckert, Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and
Public Ethics (Charles Sturt University, Australian National University and the University of

Soraj Hongladarom contended privacy has not been seen as a serious issue in Asia (or in
Thailand at least). Most Asian people lived/live within communal societies – indeed many
languages in Asia lack a specific word for the term.

In Thailand, Mr Hongladarom continued, people trust the authorities and are more willing to
share their personal information than the average Westerner. For instance, opposition to the
Thaksin administration’s Smart ID card (where each Thai citizen would be issued with a card
with a chip that could contain a huge amount of information – health records criminal records,
credit histories, political affiliations etc) was muted.

Makoto Nakada’s detailed presentation examined the assumption that Asian cultures lack the
recognition of privacy as something intrinsically good. He suggested we should reframe the
ethical discussion of this conference to what he called Intercultural Information Ethics (IIE).

“IIE deals with the impact of information and communication technology on different cultures
as well as on specific ICT issues such as privacy, digital divide, intellectual, online communities
and so on, while paying attention to different cultural traditions.”

These are important, he continued, because “the concepts and ideas used in the IIE are based on
implicit and explicit Western traditions (individualism; subjectivity supported by rationalism;
democracy dependent upon independent, rational, ‘strong’ individuals.”

How, Mr Nakada asked, can we overcome the monopolisation of terms of concepts arising
originally from western culture(s) (indeed, he questions the validity and usefulness of the
concepts of privacy in the information age [quoting Thompson who suggested the term
‘personal security’ is better than the ambiguous ‘privacy’]).

Nakada: “It is one of our fundamental assumptions that people’s attitudes towards ‘privacy’ in
Japanese culture, Chinese culture and other Asian cultures are (or are supposedly) different
from those of Western cultures. As Lu Yao-Huai (2005) and other scholars point out, Asian
cultures seem to lack the recognition of privacy as something intrinsically good (citing Asian
people’s orientation towards collectivism).”
Keen to test these assumptions, Mr Nakada surveyed 646 undergraduate students at four
Japanese universities in June 2007. Students were presented with a number of propositions – a
few of these (with the number in agreeance bracketed alongside) are presented here:

      Doing your best for other people is good for you (73.8%)
      The important thing for maintaining good social conditions is for us to be kind to each
       other and put the comfort of the others before one’s own convenience (86%)
      We can get the better results when we don’t depend upon the other judgements and
       when we determine to do something by ourselves (24.4%)
      To assert one’s demands and desires is very important for social life. (42.4%)

Mr Nakada – along with Bai Wulan and Chang Ning – then asked 300 undergrad students in
Inner Mongolia and 680 undergrads at three Chinese universities a series of similar questions.
Interestingly, 85% of Chinese students agreed with the proposition that ‘People’s respect for
privacy is among the most important presuppositions to building a harmonious society.’ (85%)

The survey also revealed some interesting differences between Japan and China:

      When we worry too much about privacy, we can’t honestly and frankly talk about
       matters with our good friends (62% Japan; 54.5% China)
      People will become corrupt if they become too rich (81% Japan; 57% China).
      There are too many people in developed countries today who are concerned only with
       themselves (70% Japan; 75% China)
      Doing your best for other people is good for you (74% Japan; 83% China).

The session’s third speaker, John Weckert, entitled his paper The Information Society’s Biggest
Problem: Monitoring and Surveillance (though conceded that other people might consider there
are bigger problems). Nevertheless, Mr Weckert maintained the problems of monitoring and
surveillance are so great they may possibly outweigh the potential advantages of ICTs.

He quoted Diffe and Landau (2007): “If, in designing the new world, we do not take privacy and
security into account in a way that reflects the primacy of the individual, our technology will
enforce a social order in which the individual is subordinate to the institutions who interests
were put foremost in the design.”

Characteristics of technology, Mr Weckert continued, is that it is precise, boasts vast memory
(does not forget) and doesn’t get tired (though nevertheless can malfunction). “We rely on them
so much that we tend to think they’re right (when things go wrong) even when they’re not.”

The characteristics of people, on the other hand, are that we are messy, inconsistent, emotional,
make mistakes and are forgetful. However, Mr Weckert maintains there is enormous value in
forgetting: “It means our mind isn’t cluttered up with information we don’t need. And it’s a
security... half an hour later people will have forgotten if we’ve said something silly whereas
make a mistake on a computer and it’s there forever.”

Whilst ICTs can bring benefits – physical security (airport security) safety, efficiency,
productivity etc – they also bring dangers – the loss of privacy, trust and autonomy (the
monitoring of employees’ work, for instance, is based on the unpleasant assumption that if we
don’t watch people, they don’t work properly). Moreover, the more people know about us, the
more power they have over us.

Mr Weckert pointed out that the contemporary emphasis on the values of efficiency and
productivity is conducive to monitoring. And technology’s irrepressible march make monitoring
and surveillance easy. However, Mr Weckert argued that a far higher ‘burden of proof’ should be
expected from those wishing to increase monitoring and surveillance. For instance, how much
of the monitoring and surveillance justified as combating terrorism is justified? How much is an
excuse? And, returning to his earlier point, he said it’s important we emphasise values other
than efficiency and productivity (e.g. privacy and equity).

If the surveillance of individuals was a particular concern for Mr Weckert, other delegates were
exercised by inter and intra state surveillance. In the areas of privacy and security the
Conference made these recommendations:

       1. We recognise the different conceptions of privacy within our various member states.
          Accordingly, the proposed draft code of ethics must be adapted to reflect cultural
          differences towards privacy and security issues. While nation states should adopt
          policies and enact laws that protect personal data, data privacy regimes must take
          into account local conceptions of privacy.
       2. Nevertheless, protection of individual’s privacy and security is a universal concern:
          the delegates emphasised the importance of protecting the vulnerable from abuses
          of power and privacy breaches.
       3. Delegates were keen to encourage the formulation of global standards on data
       4. Delegates were also keen to encourage research into the different cultural, social,
          political and religious conceptions of privacy and security issues. Once more,
          education was seen as critical – we must educate citizens of the challenges, risks and
          possible misuse of personal data to help them protect themselves in the Information
       5. Cyber-crime – particularly child pornography and paedophilia – was a major
          concern of delegates. The Conference encouraged the development of a global
          approach to combating illegal content and cybercrime. There was some talk towards
          supporting a global accord to combat cyber-crimes.
       6. Talk, too, of establishing an international authority to oversee Information Society
       7. The Conference also talked about holding more conferences where regional
          members can share, discuss and compare experiences relating to privacy, security
          and information society ethics generally. This action could be part of an informal
          network of member states – drawn from the participants of the conference – who
          research and/or have interests in information society ethics.
       8. Conference delegates advocated greater transparency in ICT design and production.
          ICT companies’ fondness for unauthorised data-collection via trackers etc on
          people’s PCs was criticised.
       9. The conference was keen to promote open source software such as Open Office,
          Mozilla Firefox etc. This has advantages from a privacy standpoint, but also removes
          a further block to access – expensive, licensed software is beyond the means of many
          of our people.
         10. Iran’s Mr Aboutalebi repeatedly raised the problem of states’ electronic monitoring
             of each other (or the citizens of other states). He raised the example of the Echelon
             spy network (operated by the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). There is,
             he said, “wide-ranging evidence that major powers are routinely utilising
             communications intelligence to achieve commercial, economic and political
             advantages”. He concluded his paper by asking: “Why is this kind of immorality in
             cyberspace that takes place on a daily basis on a global scale not under his scrutiny
             of the international institutions like UNESCO?” His point is a fair one: if we’re going
             to speak out against states using ICTs to monitor their own citizens (or monitoring
             the ICT use of said citizens), then it’s reasonable enough that we also object to cross-
             border surveillance. And so the establishment of a global surveillance monitoring
             body was suggested by some delegates. However, given the meetings’ limited
             jurisdiction to information society ethics, the conference could not recommend the
             establishment of this body. Having said that, the delegates agreed that the
             surveillance of individuals and states –by other states – is a legal and ethical
             challenge for the Information Society. This needs to be addressed within those
             forums which have the appropriate authority to act.

Ha Noi Recommendations

On the conference’s final morning, delegates drafted a document entitled ‘Ha Noi
Recommendations’. Earlier in the conference, several delegates said how impressed they were
with UNESCO’s draft code, the head of the Vietnamese delegation describing it as “almost
perfect”. And so to our recommendations that’d hopefully help take UNESCO a little further
along the road to perfection. These are attached – however, I’d like to make three points about
our Recommendations.

   (1)                                                   The vexed issue of cultural imperialism
       (and cultural relativism) ensures that, in seeking consensus, we can end up
       compromising some pretty important values. If we take the UN Declaration of Human
       Rights as sacrosanct (and that’s a controversial subject in itself), then some of our
       recommendations are contrary to the Declaration’s intent. For instance, when we
       discussed the freedom of expression clause – that we uphold freedom of expression – we
       had added that “we recognise that this has different meanings within different cultural
       contexts.” This rider overrides everything said a delegate. These are weasel words. And
       he’s right.
   (2)                                                  Some delegates were dismissive of our
       Recommendations. “They’re not going to make any difference,” one told me. “No one’s
       going to read them. No one cares. This is just to make us feel like we accomplished
       something. It’s completely meaningless.” And while I’d like to think this was the talk of a
       tired delegate looking forward to going home, I’m afraid he had a point. This was a talk
       shop for well-meaning people, but it was very light on specific recommendations. Other
       than the excellent idea of keeping in touch through some informal network, it’s hard to
       see any real objectives or goals coming out of the conference.
(3)                                                   Delegates also talked about holding more
      conferences where regional members can share, discuss and compare experiences
      relating to privacy, security and information society ethics generally. This could be part
      of an informal network of member states – derived from the participants of the
      conference – who research and/or have interests in information society ethics. Perhaps
      we could form a research network/discussion group/email exchange/website where
      collaborative research can be shared and greater regional understanding fostered.

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