Southeast Asia has published its long-awaited artificial intelligence (AI) governance and ethics guidelines that map out a voluntary and light-touch vision of how national governments can constrain the worst aspects of this new technology yet profit economically from its advance.
The ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to the guidelines, which were first drafted last year, at the 4th ASEAN Digital Ministers' Meeting in Singapore earlier this month.
Southeast Asia's more business-friendly approach to AI regulation could cause some upset within the European Union (EU). The bloc has been lobbying for other parts of the world to align with its own stricter proposed framework, the AI Act, which Brussels has dubbed the world's first comprehensive AI law.
Many businesses oppose Brussels' legislation
EU officials were sent to a dozen Asian countries, including Singapore and the Philippines, last summer to convince national governments to back its more strident AI rules, which will force companies to disclose whether they have used AI-generated content, ensure safeguards against illegal content and impose financial penalties for rules violations, Reuters reported last year.
Brussels is particularly concerned about the potential damage AI-generated content could cause to democracy and human rights, as well as social harms such as the spread of fake sexually explicit images.
Ironically, EU member states formally backed the AI Act at a meeting on February 2, the same day that ASEAN released its guidelines. The EU's legislation will head to a final vote in the European Parliament in March or April and could be ratified by the summer.
Many within the EU had hoped that ASEAN would lean much closer to its AI regulations in the same way that Brussels' data protection laws provided a template for ASEAN's rules.
Much of the EU's General Data Protection Regulation, passed in 2016 to manage information privacy and human rights, has been copied by legislation passed by Southeast Asian countries. The EU and ASEAN launched a joint set of guidelines last June on how international businesses could comply with cross-border personal data transfer.
However, Brussels' AI legislation has received pushback from the business community. Some 160 executives signed a letter in June 2023 warning that its legislation could jeopardize Europe's competitiveness, investment and innovation.
The importance of avoiding over-regulation
ASEAN states, wary of affecting business confidence and aware of the difficulty of finding consensus amongst themselves over issues like censorship because of their disparate political systems, have for now taken a voluntary, gentler approach.
The bloc's members include liberal democracies as well as one-party communist states, and they have disparate legislation on censorship and intellectual property, making it difficult for them to find common ground on how to manage potentially harmful AI-generated content, analysts say.
They also range from advanced economies with already established and thriving tech sectors, such as Singapore, to countries where access to the internet is relatively new to most of society and where digital literacy is low.
Smaller nations and developing regions of the world want to avoid over-regulation as this might "constrain innovation or drive it elsewhere," said Simon Chesterman, an expert on AI at the National University of Singapore.
Singapore was the first Southeast Asian state to launch a National AI Strategy in 2019, and last December released its National AI Strategy 2.0. The same month, Indonesia's government said it would soon propose its own national AI legislation.
According to the new ASEAN guidelines, governments in the region should nurture AI talent and upskill workforces while investing more in research and development.
"AI systems should be treated differently from other software systems because of its unique characteristics and risks," states the 87-page ASEAN Guide on AI Governance and Ethics , which was released on February 2.
"Given the profound impact that AI potentially brings to organisations and individuals in ASEAN, it is important that the decisions made by AI are aligned with national and corporate values, as well as broader ethical and social norms," it added.
Kan Min Yen, an associate professor of the National University of Singapore's School of Computing, said that Southeast Asia's regulations are not so much "loose" as they are "less specific" than legislation proposed by the EU.
"Southeast Asia is a more diverse region in terms of its digital ecosystem compared to the relative maturity of the EU," he added.
"With emergent nations and infrastructure, strict regulation may be overly taxing to implement and oversee for ASEAN governments, as well as startups and multinational corporations."
Josh Lee, Asia-Pacific managing director of the Future of Privacy Forum, concurs. Most Southeast Asian governments have taken "an incremental and soft approach to AI regulation, focusing on voluntary guidelines and codes of conduct, rather than hard law."
However, Lee noted that this might not necessarily be the case in the future. ASEAN members, he said, have not ruled out enacting comprehensive national AI regulation similar to the EU's AI Act.
In December 2023, the Indonesian government announced plans to enact a comprehensive national AI law at some point in future, and there remains the possibility that the region's governments could agree on a stricter and legally binding regulatory framework.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in January, the speaker of the Philippine Congress, Martin Romualdez, said that Manila wants the regional bloc to adopt a framework similar to its own draft legislation.
Romualdez said that Manila could seek to engineer such legislation when it holds the annually rotating chairmanship of the ASEAN bloc in 2026.
Analysts say that much depends on what happens within the EU: Can the bloc's tougher, legally binding rules constrain the potentially negative aspects of AI without jeopardizing the fortunes of tech companies?
"Policymakers in Southeast Asia will be paying close attention to how the EU AI Act is implemented and what impact it will have on Europe's digital economy," Lee said.
Edited by: Keith Walker