ASEAN’s innovative AI guide shifts focus, countering EU’s regulatory efforts

Southeast Asian nations are charting a distinct path in AI governance, defying the EU’s push for global regulations. The ASEAN’s voluntary ‘guide to AI ethics and governance’ prioritises cultural nuances and flexibility, aiming to create a business-friendly environment.

In a move that diverges from the European Union’s ambitions for unified global AI regulations, Southeast Asian nations are adopting a business-friendly stance towards AI governance. A confidential draft of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) ‘guide to AI ethics and governance’ has been reviewed by Reuters, with the document emphasising cultural differences and avoiding strict risk categories. Unlike the EU’s AI Act, the ASEAN guide encourages companies to consider cultural diversity and does not impose specific risk categories. The guide is voluntary and aims to provide guidance for domestic regulations. It is expected to be finalised during the ASEAN Digital Ministers Meeting in January 2024 after being shared with tech giants such as Meta, IBM, and Google. 

The guide encourages governments to support companies through research and development funding and establishes an ASEAN digital ministers working group for AI implementation. While it advocates the creation of AI risk assessment structures and AI governance training, it leaves the specifics to companies and local regulators.

Earlier this year, the EU officials visited Asian nations in an attempt to persuade governments to adopt its AI regulations, which include content disclosure for copyrighted and AI-generated material. However, the ASEAN approach focuses on cultural nuances and allows more flexibility. With diverse regulations concerning censorship, misinformation, public content, and hate speech across Southeast Asian countries, the hands-off approach is seen as business-friendly and less burdensome on tech companies operating in the region. ASEAN’s guide aligns with other global AI frameworks, such as the United States’ NIST AI Risk Management Framework.

Officials in several ASEAN countries believe that AI holds great potential for Southeast Asia and argue that the EU has been too hasty in pushing for regulations without fully understanding the technology’s benefits and risks. The guide acknowledges the risks of AI misuse, including ‘deepfakes’ and misinformation. However, it allows individual countries to determine the best responses. 

EU officials and lawmakers intend to continue discussions with Southeast Asian nations to align on fundamental principles, despite the existing cultural differences.

‘If we want AI to be used for good, we need to come together on the basic principles of human rights,’ stated Dutch minister for digitalisation, Alexandra van Huffelen. ‘I don’t think we are very far off from that; we couldn’t bridge the differences.’