Cover image for 'Empowering Privacy:Civil Society Strategies in East Asia's Digital Landscape'

Empowering Privacy:Civil Society Strategies in East Asia's Digital Landscape

This report is led by the Open culture Foundation. By collecting 19 CSOs/ Activists' voices , this report presents the future potential advocacy strategies for activists within Asian democratic countries/areas. Especially, seeing how the advocacy continued when democracy collapsed in Hong Kong's case. For this report, OCF is particularly appreciative of the great contributions from all these 19 civil societies/activists in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea. From the sharing of their work and experience, it highlighted the possibilities of citizen movement to improve digital rights in the region.

This report is led by the Open culture Foundation and supported by “Open Society Foundation” . By collecting 19 CSOs/ Activists' voices , this report presents the future potential advocacy strategies for activists within Asian democratic countries/areas. Especially, seeing how the advocacy continued when democracy collapsed in Hong Kong's case.

Mandarin Chinese Version

English Version

  • Research methods:
    The research adopted a qualitative approach to identifying key digital privacy issues for civil society actors and exploring their advocacy efforts.
    The selection of Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan as case studies stems from their diverging historical trajectories and socio-political environments. For Hong Kong, we adopted an alternative approach. Rather than interviewing specific organizations, we engaged with networks to understand how recent legislative changes have affected digital rights and privacy.
    In terms of data collection, the research consists of questionnaires and interviews with targeted civil society actors across the three case studies.
    • Online questionnaire: We formulated a set of 15 questions to gather structured information on key digital privacy issues and advocacy strategies employed by a broad range of civil society actors, including representatives from human rights CSOs, scholars, independent activists and open-source community members.
    • In-depth interviews: The questionnaire phase provided preliminary information used to frame the focus of the research, while the in-depth interviews indicated ongoing concerns and trends from civil society actors’ perspectives, allowing us to identify common key concerns faced by local civil society actors .
    In total, we collected data from 19 East Asian civil society actors, including 15 registered CSOs, 2 activist networks/communities, and 2 individuals across the three East Asian cases studied. The data comprises 18 valid questionnaires and 12 interviews.
  • About Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong:In this report, we highlight the strategies employed for advocacy. The primary cases studied and their relevant issues in these three countries/area are:
    • Taiwan:Electronic National Identification Card (eID) and National Health Insurance Data Sharing
      In Taiwan, advocacy challenges faced by civil society actors include varied stakeholder interests, inadequate privacy laws, low public awareness and technical hurdles. To address these challenges, civil society actors employ strategies such as litigation against policies that infringe on privacy rights and capitalize on public concerns regarding broader issues like national security for advocacy purposes.
    • South Korea:Privacy Regulation Reforms, and Contact Tracing During COVID-19 Pandemic
      In South Korea, civil society actors face advocacy challenges such as low public awareness, government and corporate prioritization of interests over privacy rights, and reliance on digital technology that undermines privacy. In response, civil society actors have employed various strategies, including litigation, public sensitization efforts, and positioning themselves as recognized partners in policy discussions.
    • Hong Kong:Use of Privacy Regulations Against Activists and Enhanced SurveillanceIn Hong Kong, CSOs and activists using digital tools face increasing risks of government surveillance and harassment as authoritarian measures grow. The National Security Law (NSL) allows the government to bypass data privacy regulations, significantly affecting CSOs. The NSL coupled with the enforcement of mass surveillance undermines privacy, yet ironically, the government also uses the privacy argument to shield itself from public scrutiny. The decline in freedoms has chilled CSO activities, halting direct advocacy. In response, CSOs have devised flexible strategies to cope with these political pressures.
  • Within these 19 civil society actors, we see…
    • Civil Society's Battle Against Governments’ Privacy Trade-offs in East Asia
      From the perspective of civil society actors, it appears that governments are willing to trade privacy rights for other benefits. These include several broad objectives such as: enhancing public service efficiency, as illustrated by the implementation of Taiwan's eID system; promoting economic growth, seen in South Korea's approach to leveraging pseudonymous information, and data closely related to the original collection purpose; and improving health research, evident in Taiwan's original push to expand the use of national health insurance data.
    • The Struggle for Digital Privacy Awareness in East Asia's Civic Sphere
      One major challenge shared by civil society actors across the three East Asian case studies lies in raising public awareness about digital privacy issues amidst the allure of digital applications and economic development. While national security and cybersecurity related incidents in Taiwan, such as the case of eIDs, have brought digital privacy concerns into the social spotlight, there remains insufficient public awareness around the importance of privacy as a fundamental human right.
    • Strategic Advocacy: Litigations and Interdisciplinary Collaborations
      interdisciplinary collaboration among civil society actors with backgrounds in technology and human rights. Such collaboration is crucial for advocating for digital privacy due to the issue's cross-disciplinary nature. It is, however, critical to understand that technological interventions should complement, not replace, institutional reforms.

As a CSO-initiated research effort, we acknowledge our limitations in addressing only a select few key issues and civil society actors for each East Asian case. Nonetheless, we believe that such an endeavor to generate knowledge about activism from civil society itself is crucial for advancing digital rights across the region. Despite the global nature of digital technology and the supposed universality of human rights, forging meaningful international alliances across civil societies remains a challenging task. Difficulties arise from the fact that civil society actors are rooted in locales with distinct legal, political, and linguistic backgrounds, creating significant barriers to mutual understanding and the search for common ground in advocacy. By generating evidence from the bottom-up, our research establishes an empirical foundation for future advocacy efforts across the region. The research process itself has also fostered new connections and opportunities among the civil society actors involved. We sincerely appreciate their participation, and we hope that our research effort can serve as a cornerstone for future partnerships.


Chia-Shuo Tang (Research Manager / OCF)

Chia-Shuo Tang is the research manager at Open Culture Foundation Taiwan. With a background in sociology, anthropology, and science and technology studies, his current main area of work involves digital rights, governance, and civil society safety in Taiwan.

Szu-Hui Huang (Project Manager / OCF)

Szu-Hui Huang is the project manager at Open Culture Foundation Taiwan. With a background in social work and international development studies, she has over 8 years of working in women’s rights and capacity building for CSOs, now focusing on digital rights and civil society safety in Taiwan and East Asia.

Research Team

Safe Spaces Taiwan Ltd

Founded in January 2022, Safe Spaces Taiwan Ltd is a policy consulting firm with offices in Taipei and Washington DC. We focus on advising and assisting clients with political and business issues, especially those concerning US-Taiwan relations, Taiwan politics, trade, media, and governments. Founded and managed by a close-knit team of policy professionals, we differentiate ourselves from other firms with our flexibility, creativity, and experiences.We see ourselves as innovators who seek to take advantage of needs arising from the new political and economic environments brought about by key changes, such as U.S-China competition, trade dispute, and Taiwan's continued democratization and liberalization.

External Advisor

Shih-hung Shawn Shieh, Ph.D. (Director / Social Innovations Advisory; Co-founder,Freshwater Institute )

Shawn has 15 years of experience working to strengthen civil society and social movements in the Asia-Pacific. He is the director of Social Innovations Advisory, Ltd., and the co-founder of Freshwater Institute, a Taiwan nonprofit organization established to provide capacity building support to human rights groups in East Asia. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University.