I sat down this week for a chat with Taiwan Internet stalwart T. H. Schee (徐子涵, @scheeinfo on Twitter). Schee’s career for the last two decades has been focused on Internet and public policy in Taiwan.
At 24, in 2002, Schee became project manager at Yam.com for blogs. Since then he has been involved in the digital transformation of Taiwan, consulting for and participating on government, academic and private organizations and panels. He has built up a reputation for his work on the intersection of Internet and public policy.
Schee was invited to a UN expert council in 2011 based on his work organizing an NPO to aid the government in organizing and distributing the dataset in the aftermath of typhoon Morakot in 2009. This data involved such activities as mapping water deliveries to local towns to help locals find delivery sites.
Photo courtesy of T.H. Schee
“The government did not have the right capacity to deliver information to the Internet audience,” he said.
Schee was central to this volunteer NPO taskforce that took the databases out of the government and delivered the information in useful ways to social networks and organizations. The NPO taskforce posted people to local emergency response centers in the south for 10 days, organized out of the overall headquarters in New Taipei City.
In this wide-ranging interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, Schee discusses the possible ways WeChat can impact Taiwan’s politics, Facebook’s Trust and Safety Team set up to protect Taiwan’s elections, the soon-to-be-formed Ministry of Digital Development and the nation’s COVID-19 surveillance program and its impact on privacy.
Michael Turton: Last time we met we talked about WeChat and the election. You were very scary! When and how did you first become aware that people might be underestimating the effect of WeChat on Taiwan and its politics?
T. H. Schee: Thinking about conversations people were having in Taiwan about the election information ecology, few in the government or academia were mentioning WeChat. Yet it has 2-3 million active users in Taiwan, more than 10 percent of the whole population. Not only does WeChat offer a conduit for information to flow from the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to Taiwan, but it is also used for purchases on Chinese shopping sites like Taobao and Alibaba.
More than that, though, PRC entities are using WeChat to pay for work done in Taiwan. Say someone does design work for a PRC firm. That firm will pay them using WeChat, but the money more or less has to be spent within the PRC shopping ecosystem, since it is tied to the renminbi which is difficult to convert to foreign currency in the PRC. This is a quiet form of economic colonization. Not just Taiwan, it is also growing in places like Kenya and Cambodia.
Turton: Talk to me about the new digital ministry. What are your thoughts?
Schee: The government has promised to send the law for the new digital ministry to the legislature this year. What is bothering so many of us is that, for example, if you have an Internet company, you will probably have to report to the new ministry within a couple of years, but the details are still completely unclear. Compare that to a couple of decades ago when certain intelligence agencies that existed were not written into the laws (meaning that, for example, their budgets were not submitted to the legislature). When they were legalized, there was a robust public discussion.
Turton: What is its [the digital ministry’s] role supposed to be?
Schee: (laughs) We don’t really know. Many of my lawyer friends want to see the draft law. The president’s inauguration speech indicated it would be about consolidation of government cybersecurity forces.
Secondly, they want to put the general government IT, the government’s own networks, under it. We know that from media reports since there is very little information on government Web sites.
Turton: I have been looking at Facebook and the damage its algorithms have allegedly done in Myanmar, Philippines and in the US 2016 and 2020 elections. What is the potential for similar scenarios in Taiwan?
Schee: I’ve talked to the person responsible for this in Taiwan. We have a far more active society, more active and sufficiently funded NGOs to do fact-check work and to bring in academics to work on bot and troll farm attacks. They are not as good as needed, but Taiwan is much more diverse and robust than these other societies.
Facebook also has implemented more safety measures for this market because of pressure from civil society and the government. Recently Facebook has also been hiring new people specifically to address Taiwan’s problems. The pressure was real. They had a Trust and Safety team set up in Taipei for the 2020 elections after the Taiwan government approached them in the wake of the 2016 election in the US and the 2018 elections in Taiwan.
Turton: How do privacy advocates and democracy advocates see the COVID-19 surveillance programs?
Schee: Especially in the legal field, there is a wide-ranging and rich discussion on Facebook, but not on Twitter. The feeling is that the government is telling media through press releases, but there is no central place on government Web sites where interested users can go to find out what is going on. This is because there is no privacy commission or agency in the government responsible for private data regulation. Thus, there is no single body overseeing private data that the government holds. Each agency is responsible for its own data. Naturally, some are much better than others.
The debates center around this issue. For example, if a corporation wants to use your data, there is no central place they can ask whether their intended use is legal. It is a nightmare for corporations. So one thing people are pushing for is a commission, perhaps under the new digital ministry, perhaps an independent body similar to the National Communications Commission (NCC), that oversees privacy.
Turton: So there are government organizations that might have your COVID-19 data, but no one is making sure it is deleted when the threat is over.
Schee: Exactly. Not just the government, but private companies, or even local precinct officials, who have to be informed if you are quarantined in their neighborhood. There are 7,000 of these officials, and no one is really overseeing their digital data handling.
Turton: Everyone in Taiwan seems digitally connected. How digitally savvy do you think Taiwanese really are?
Schee: I would say that Taiwanese tech users are more savvy in some ways. They know the app ecosystem originating from China, they know the open Internet originated from the US and they know the gaming ecosystems originated in Korea and Japan. That means that they know how to navigate these ecosystems much better than, say, many Europeans.
But they are not very privacy-oriented or data protection-oriented. I mean, lets face it, we have a history of exporting spammers (laughs)! When law enforcement in Africa or Rumania or China busts into a room of spammers, they will always find someone connected to Taiwan (laughs)!
Turton: As a person who lives here, what should I be doing to support privacy and learn about cybersecurity?
Schee: The Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Education both have materials aimed at the K-12 group. Those are useful and readable. Generally speaking, when you are in the PRC ecosystem, use a separate phone, simcard and identity. You really don’t want that ecosystem to interfere with your presence in other digital ecosystems. For example, you can use WeChat with the simcard you got in China and those social networks there, but you need to maintain watertight separation between those networks and your networks in Taiwan. The best way is to use a separate phone. It’s hard, but it is something you can strive to learn.
Long-time resident Michael Turton provides incisive commentary informed by three decades of living in and writing about Taiwan.
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