APAC nations pledge digital cooperation, but acknowledge some implementation challenging

Governments participating in the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity have laid out new five-year goals to "co-create a connected digital future" for the region that include the development of data privacy and cybersecurity policies and regulations, but admit that--given the number of countries involved--the rollout of some components will be challenging.

The governments of 38 members of the Asia-Pacific Telecommunity (APT) have pledged to come together to drive digital connectivity and ICT developments in the region, outlining key five-year goals they believe will help drive this vision including building digital trust and digital infrastructure. Implementing some of these, however, may prove challenging given the number of countries involved and the varying stages of ICT development across Asia.  

Established in February 1979, the APT describes itself as the only treaty-based inter-governmental organisation focused on the region's telecommunication and ICT sectors. It was jointly founded by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and International Telecommunication Union (ITU), and currently has 38 members that include Singapore, China, Australia, India, Indonesia, and Japan.  

Its members, who meet every five years, gathered this week in Singapore to lay out a new mission statement that aimed to boost regional cooperation around five key goals over the next five years. These would focus on digital transformation, digital innovation and creativity, digital community, digital trust, and digital capacity building and partnerships. 

In driving digital transformation, for instance, the APT members pledged to "promote the development and adoption of" policies and regulations that facilitated greater transparency, consumer protection, and market competition, amongst others. 

With regards to digital trust, they also agreed to "encourage" the deployment of "trusted and secured" systems that "promote" the protection of data privacy and were resilient towards cyber threats. These also would facilitate free and secure data flow, so the public could engage in online activities with confidence and openly share information online, the statement read.

In addition, the members pledged to "promote" the development of policies and regulations on data privacy, "where required", to enable free and secure flow of data in the region whilst recognising international frameworks governing data privacy. 

Speaking to the media Wednesday, Singapore's Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran said APT members recognised digital technologies could provide significant new opportunities and were keen to harness these for their citizens. They also realised the need to establish policies and regulations to support such efforts, he said. 

ZDNet asked how these would be integrated with other similar regional initiatives, such as the Asean members' joint efforts to create a cybersecurity framework, and whether this meant local regulations, such as those related to cybersecurity and personal data protection, would need to be aligned with the APT's recommended policies.  

The APT's secretary-general Areewan Haorangsi said the statement outlined a shared vision, but noted that each country was at a different stage of ICT development and not all, for instance, had data protection laws. Pointing to Singapore's Personal Data Protection Act, she said this could serve as a good model for other countries and the city-state would be able to share its experience and lessons with other APT members. Countries that had yet to establish such policies also could move towards developing these alongside the APT's efforts, Haorangsi said. 

The Thai native, however, acknowledged it would not be easy to achieve complete cohesion across all APT members, given the number of countries involved. She said a common ground could be established, and adopted, over the next five years, and added that every ICT minister involved was committed to the five-year vision and would work towards driving the group's key goals. 

Iswaran concurred, noting that there already were different jurisdictions today across the globe, with countries at different stages of development with regards to regulations. He said the approaches might differ but there were shared objectives, for example, to  enable the secure flow of data in building digital trust. The aim then was to find common standards that all members could adopt and transact with each other in a confident way, he noted, adding that the members would continue to share and exchange best practices. 

Haorangsi said the APT would come up with action plans to drive its new five-year vision and these implementations would be "closely monitored". 

Cross-border trade agreements should include digital transactions

During his opening address at the Smart Nation Summit, Iswaran also touched on the need for trade agreements that pertained to cross-border digital transactions. He said Singapore had introduced the concept of a Digital Economy Agreement, which looked to establish cooperation between digital economies and clear rules to facilitate greater interoperability between digital frameworks. 

It also would guard against digital and data barriers, the minister noted, adding that it also would seek to establish international rules and benchmarks as well as address newer areas such as artificial intelligence and digital identities.

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Singapore already had begun trilateral talks on such agreements with New Zealand and Chile, as well as initiated discussions with Australia to boost cooperation for their digital economies, he said. 

Iswaran said: "In tandem with such initiatives to build an interconnected digital economy, we believe it is essential government, industry, and the community of stakeholders work together to forge trust in digital ecosystems. This is a key underpinning if a digital economy is to succeed. 

"For example, personal data protection and cybersecurity are key to fostering greater confidence and trust in the digital realm, permitting data to be harness with fewer restrictions, and enabling technological innovation to flourish," he said. 

During the media briefing, the Singapore minister fielded questions on its 5G rollout, noting that the country currently was assessing industry feedback and aimed to deploy the next-generation mobile technology next year. He added that the government had yet to take a position on any equipment vendor regarding its network rollout, but said all telecommunication operators would need to ensure the resilience and security of their systems. 

This meant telcos would have to ensure their proposed implementation was secured and satisfied all standards set by the Singapore government, he said, noting that the government welcomed vendor diversity as this would help ensure network resilience. 

Asked if the US government's allegation concerning the security risks of Huawei's 5G systems was discussed during the APT meeting this week, Iswaran replied simply that this was "not explicitly discussed". 

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