By Paul Eckert
U.S. non-governmental organization again ranked China as the “worst abuser of internet freedom” in an annual survey that found 32 of 65 countries assessed moving on a “negative trajectory” in the year since June 2014.
The Washington-based said global internet freedom has declined for the fifth consecutive year, “with more governments censoring information of public interest and placing greater demands on the private sector to take down offending content.”
China, which scored 88 on a scale on which 100 was the worst, saw an erosion of its previous year’s score of 87, as President Xi Jinping deepened his stress on “cyber sovereignty” as a priority for sustaining Communist Party rule over the nation of 1.3 billion people.
“Over the past year, the renewed emphasis on information controlled to acts of unconcealed aggression against internet freedom,” said the report.
“Internet users endured crackdowns on “rumors,” greater enforcement of rules against anonymity, and disruptions to the circumvention tools that are commonly used to bypass censorship,” it said.
“Though not entirely new, these measures were implemented with unprecedented intensity,” the report added.
Freedom House said the Xi administration’s quest for control meant tough policies for foreign Internet companies, including Google, as well as “undermining of digital security protocols, and its ongoing erosion of user rights, including through extralegal detentions and the imposition of prison sentences for online speech.”
“50 cent” commenters
The report highlighted China’s monitoring, censorship and manipulation of content – tasks it said were carried out by thousands of people employed by party propaganda department, government agencies, and private companies.
“A range of issues are systematically censored, including independent evaluations of China’s human rights record, critiques of government policy, and the authorities’ treatment of ethnic minorities,” said Freedom House.
The report noted that in addition to at least tens of thousands of so-called “50 cent” commenters – those paid to post pro-government comments or derail critical discussions of China on-line – deployed in China, Chinese authorities also use paid commenters abroad, including on social media platforms that are banned in China, like Twitter.
“Approximately 2,500 ‘50 Cent’ users on Twitter follow and retweet one another in order to create confusion and mislead the public,” it said.
The only countries where the internet was deemed less free than China were Syria and Iran, while the Middle East saw the sharpest deterioration in the year covered in the survey.
Vietnam – which like China is a one-party state led by Communists – scored a 76 and “with 29 netizens imprisoned … continues to be one of the worst jailers of bloggers in the world,” said the report.
“With fewer resources devoted to online content control than in China, the Vietnamese authorities have nevertheless established an effective content filtering system,” it said.
“Blocking in Vietnam primarily targets topics with the potential to threaten the Vietnam Communist Party’s (VCP) political power, including political dissent, human rights and democracy, as well as websites criticizing the government’s reaction to border and sea disputes between China and Vietnam,” said the report.
Old habits in Myanmar
Also rated “not free” by Freedom House was the internet of slowly democratizing Myanmar, which scored 63 on the scale.
“Internet freedom in Myanmar declined during the coverage period of this report in comparison with the progress made since the country undertook liberalization in 2011,” said the report.
In the country formerly called Burma that has emerged from nearly 50 years of hard-line army rule, “government and security forces stepped up intimidation of internet users during social protests, intensifying conflict in ethnic minority regions, and during preparation for the 2015 national elections,” it said.
Freedom House noted that while former military leader President Thein Sein officially ended media censorship in 2012, and allowed internet freedom to improve in 2013 “the situation began to deteriorate in late 2014 as the practices of the old regime were revived.”
Cambodia was rated “partly free” by Freedom House, which gave it a score of 48 and noted that the Internet remains the freest medium in the Southeast Asian country.
“A potentially repressive cybercrime law, leaked in draft form in early 2014, remains pending” in Phnom Penh, the report warned.
“A separate draft telecommunications law that threatens the privacy and anonymity of internet users through increased surveillance was leaked to the public in June 2014,” said Freedom House.
The 968-page report on 65 countries is published at https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2015
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