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Internet Freedom in Asia
Saturday, 21 May 2011 00:33

The arrival of the Internet has been a boon to freedom as people can use the web to communicate, obtain information, socialize and conduct commerce.  Nowhere is this more the case than in Asia where governments have invested heavily in telecommunications infrastructure and Internet service providers have sought to attract customers -- and also where economic development means that citizens have the financial capacity and knowledge necessary to exploit the Internet.

But as governments, particularly repressive ones, see dangers and threats in the Internet, they have moved to regulate or restrict its free flow of information.

We have all experienced the transformative revolution of the Internet.  Email.  Internet shopping through Amazon and other companies.  Access to information through websites.  Listening to music and watching films on Youtube.  Facebook.  Twitter.  And so it goes on.

In this context, the internet is supporting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which says that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers" (Article 19).

Like anything, the Internet can be misused.  But this was not immediately obvious.  So when the Internet first became commercially available, there were very few restrictions on online communications and content.

A number of obvious examples of Internet misuse quickly came to the fore.  Things like illegal gambling and other illegal financial transactions, child pornography, copyright infringement, or the incitement of hatred or violence.  The case for censorship and regulation is clear.

But many repressive regimes feel threatened by the Internet, as a recent Freedom House report documents clearly.  This report rates countries based on three criteria: obstacles to access; limits on content; and violations of user rights.

To maintain their grip on power, they rely on restricting access to information, and controlling citizens' capacity to assemble and protest.  As we have seen in the jasmine revolutions in North Africa, the Internet has empowered repressed citizens and threatens to undermine repressive political regimes.  They have been striking back by website blocking and filtering, content manipulation, attacks on and imprisonment of bloggers, and cyberattacks.

The most egregious example is perhaps that of China.  This economic giant is in a state of political paranoia and panic.  Although it is home to the world's large population of Internet users (about 450 million), the country's Internet environment is one of the world's most restrictive, with a sophisticated, multilayered control apparatus.  In 2010, the authorities imposed a months-long shutdown of internet access in the western region of Xinjiang.

By the end of 2010, the Chinese internet increasingly resembled an intranet, with many average users being isolated from international social media platforms and primarily exposed to a manipulated online information landscape, as highlighted when the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.  China has also emerged as a key global source of cyberattacks, with targets ranging from groups reporting on Chinese human rights abuses to international finance, defense and technology companies.

In addition to China, other Asian countries to earn a "Not Free" grading were Burma, Vietnam and Thailand.  They all find themselves in the same unsavoury category as rogue states like Iran, Cuba and Saudi Arabia.

Internet users in Thailand have played a significant role in challenging the political establishment and the role of the monarchy in Thai politics since the military coup of 2006.  Over the past two years online censorship has increased in both scale and scope affecting tens of thousands of websites, including independent news outlets and human rights groups.

A number of Asian countries also find themselves in the middle category for internet freedom of "Partly Free", countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Korea.  In Malaysia, the government has been controlling and using the internet to influence political opinion, as opposition parties are becoming more popular.  In India, following the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, the government has sought to control the communications sector.

In Vietnam, in addition to blocking websites, restricting some social networking tools, and instigating cyberattacks, the authorities displayed their muscle by sentencing four activists to a total of 33 years in prison for using the internet to report human rights violations and express pro-democracy views.  An Indonesia housewife faced high fines for an email she sent to friends complaining about a local hospital!

These are all very disturbing trends.  No Asian country was judged to have "Free" access to the Internet (Japan was not included in the 37 countries covered by this study).  Top of the list for Internet freedom were Estonia, the US, Germany and Australia.

But trying to control the internet is like a game, which is never fully won or lost.  Citizens and activists are pushing back by finding ways to sidestep some of the restrictions and the use the power of new platforms to promote democracy and human rights.  The number of Vietnamese Facebook users doubled from one to two million within a year after November 2009, when the site became inaccessible by ordinary means!

This excellent work by Freedom House (which was created by Eleanor Roosevelt some 70 years ago!) highlights how fragile and nervous many apparently powerful regimes like China really feel.  The sudden and unpredictable nature of the jasmine revolution in North Africa shows that they are right to worry.  And these restrictions on internet freedom are also evidence that while emerging Asia is a region of economic freedom, it is certainly much less so a region of political and social freedom.



Freedom on the Net 2011: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media


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