Exclusive: Southeast Asia eyes hands-off AI rules, defying EU ambitions

Southeast Asian countries are taking a business-friendly approach to artificial intelligence (AI) regulation, diverging from the European Union’s (EU) push for globally harmonized rules. In a confidential draft of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) “guide to AI ethics and governance,” obtained by Reuters, it is revealed that the region is opting for a voluntary and culturally sensitive framework. This approach aims to reduce compliance burdens and foster innovation in a region with diverse rules governing censorship, misinformation, and hate speech.

The ASEAN “AI guide” is currently being circulated to technology companies, including Meta, IBM, and Google, for feedback. The guide aligns closely with other leading AI frameworks, such as the United States’ NIST AI Risk Management Framework, according to IBM Asia’s Vice President of Government Affairs, Stephen Braim. This alignment with established frameworks ensures that companies can navigate the regulatory landscape more effectively.

Unlike the EU’s AI Act, which emphasizes disclosure of harmful and AI-generated content, the ASEAN guide encourages companies to consider cultural differences and does not prescribe unacceptable risk categories. This approach allows for greater flexibility and adaptation to local contexts. Moreover, the guide urges governments to support companies through research and development funding, emphasizing the importance of collaboration between the public and private sectors.

While the EU has been advocating for stricter regulation, senior officials in ASEAN countries believe that the EU’s approach may be premature. They argue that it is essential to fully understand the benefits and risks of AI before implementing stringent regulations. The ASEAN guide acknowledges the risks associated with AI, such as misinformation and deepfakes, but leaves it to individual countries to determine the most effective response.

The ASEAN region’s business-friendly approach to AI regulation is not unique. Japan and South Korea have also signaled relaxed approaches, casting doubts on the EU’s ambition to establish a global standard for AI governance. However, the EU remains committed to engaging in discussions with Southeast Asian states to align over broader principles, particularly those related to human rights.

Overall, the ASEAN region’s voluntary and culturally sensitive approach to AI regulation is seen as a positive step towards fostering innovation and minimizing compliance burdens. By aligning with established AI frameworks, companies can navigate the regulatory landscape more effectively. While differences remain between the EU and ASEAN, ongoing discussions aim to bridge gaps and establish common principles for the responsible use of AI.

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