Internet freedom in Asian countries: an analysis

Asia is a controversial region when it comes to civil liberties, in general, and Internet freedom, in particular. Even in countries like Japan and Singapore, which boast a high level of technological progress and mind-boggling Internet penetration rates, the web is an increasingly regulated environment.

Residents of some Asian countries can be subject to severe penalties, including criminal prosecution, for expressing their views on social media and personal blogs. The same goes for news sites. To silence them, authorities have passed draconian laws imposing online censorship.

The tightening cyberspace regulations are not only an issue for local Internet users. Because Asia is a mecca for numerous travellers and cyber nomads from overseas, being aware of these developments is an essential prerequisite for a hassle-free stay in these countries.

This article sheds light on online privacy risks and the degree of Internet censorship in Asia to give you the big picture.

Japan

Japan is one of the world’s leaders in terms of the Internet penetration rate, with a whopping 91% of its population connected to the web. Whereas online censorship and governmental interference with citizens’ Internet activities are moderate, things are gradually changing. This explains why VPN tools are increasingly popular in the Land of the Rising Sun, both among locals and visitors from abroad.

Japan authorities are doing their best to pull the plug on torrenting. The penalties for violating the relevant laws can reach 10 million yen (about $95,000) in fines and a two-year jail sentence.

Downloading copyright-protected content this way is not likely to entail serious legal consequences but uploading or seeding such materials is a risky business that may lead to arrest. In 2013, 27 people were apprehended for uploading music videos, comics, anime, and video games without the proprietors’ official blessing.

Freedom House, the well-known human rights advocacy organization, flagged Japan as “Free” in regards to limitations on social media services, content access, or suppression of famous bloggers. The country’s constitution contributes to the overall Internet freedom as its provisions prohibit censorship and protect all forms of expression.

The caveat is that national security challenges may cause the government to adopt a more stringent tactic. In 2013, Japanese legislators passed a law that criminalizes disclosing all types of national secrets regardless of intent. Freedom House emphasizes that the document (called the “Act on Protection of Specially Designated Secrets”) may have adverse implications for reporters and societal watchdogs.

Similar concerns have since been expressed by the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee. The inter-governmental institution lays stress on the fact that the law does not clearly specify what types of data leaks it criminalizes. Because violators are faced with serious penalties, the legislation will likely silence journalists and human rights activists.

The controversial regulations emerged in light of a suggestion of the country’s communications ministry to start surveilling the Internet. The provisions were intended to impose limitations upon popular online news outlets, similar to those supervising TV channels and physical newspapers. According to the report, the government must step in because Internet Service Providers (ISPs) may be unable to estimate the impact of specific wrongdoing.

Shinzo Abe, the former Prime Minister of Japan, was known for his initiatives to suppress mass media freedoms. His government reportedly subdued several influential media watchdogs and caused dismissals of sharp-tongued journalists in 2016.

In response to this unnerving trend, the UN launched a mission to evaluate the breadth and depth of the issue. As part of the initiative, its representatives talked to reporters, educators, and government officials. The verdict was that the independent press in Japan is confronted with serious pressure.

Shortly after the UN’s special rapporteur David Kaye spread the word about these findings, the press freedom rankings of the oriental country dropped 11 positions, down to 72 out of 180 countries.

The Foreign Policy news publication found that Japan’s intelligence office kept the UN mission under surveillance. For instance, its agents monitored the movements of a local lawyer who facilitated the work of the research team.

The silver lining is that despite the tightening regulations, there have been no reports about representatives of the press getting arrested so far. However, individuals charged with leaking state secrets may be subject to a ten-year jail sentence.

Singapore

Although Singapore is a tiny city-state in Southeast Asia, it is the region’s business and technology giant. However, its residents have a limited range of Internet freedoms. Downloading and distributing NSFW content (such as sexually explicit videos or images) is strictly prohibited. You will not get in trouble if you accidentally visit an adult site, but you are not allowed to try to download these materials.

Singaporean legislation passed in 2014 also forbids downloading copyright-protected content. Before this, a proprietor of such data had to submit an official notice to the violator’s ISP to block access to the content. The weak link of this mechanism was that the ISP was not obliged to fulfill the request.

Although the city-state has a whopping 82.5% Internet penetration rate, Freedom House ranked its online ecosystem as “Partly Free.” The advocacy entity’s report mentions the criminal prosecution of online bloggers and restrictions on freedom of speech in Singapore.

During 2015-2016, there were several reported cases of bloggers and media representatives being penalized for “misdeeds” that ran the gamut from offending religious communities to slandering the Prime Minister.

Malaysia

This country’s Internet realm has undergone adverse changes over the past few years due to the government’s initiatives to control online publications and bring down sites that pinpointed political corruption cases. Also, a number of bloggers and social network users have been apprehended for expressing their opinions.

To top it off, if you surf the web from a Malaysian IP address, you will run into instances of censorship. A series of online resources, including news sites and blogs, have been blocked for criticizing the authorities.

These disconcerting developments underlie Freedom House’s “Partly Free” rating of the Malaysian cyberspace. The organization mentions, among other things, the government’s attempts to silence journalists.

Local authorities departed from the alleged commitment to keeping the Internet free of censorship in 2016 when they blocked access to several resources that shined the light on corruption scandals involving Prime Minister Najib Razzak. As part of this controversial move, a popular news site The Malaysian Insider was coerced to close up shop, and the online publishing hub Medium underwent restrictions as well.

This pressure is a serious concern for a country where roughly 70% of the population is connected to the web. Malaysia outperforms Thailand and the Philippines by this criterion while slightly lagging behind Singapore.

Malaysian authorities are known to invest heavily in extending Internet coverage across the country through high-speed mobile connectivity in rural areas. Whereas these efforts are undoubtedly commendable, they have increased the population’s political awareness and paved the way toward heightened criticism of the authorities.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), censorship of cyberspace in the country is getting worse as the government is trying to iron out any online discussions of political corruption.

To add insult to injury, the authorities are planning to ramp up these initiatives by making amendments to current regulations such as the Communication and Multimedia Act and the Official Secret Act. These tweaks will allow the government to further hold sway over ISPs, online news outlets, and individuals’ activities on the Internet.

Indonesia

Internet censorship is making itself felt considerably in this Asian country. Its laws prohibit downloading adult materials and even using some social media resources. It comes as no surprise that Freedom House’s online freedom status for Indonesia is “Partly Free.”

The filtering of Internet content by blocking some social media is the top concern. The authorities claim to be taking this route in order to flush out fake news, terrorism, and sexually explicit content.

These efforts are facilitated by an AI-powered system called Cyber Drone 9, which automatically identifies materials that are subject to blocking. The major web services that have experienced censorship in Indonesia include Reddit, Netflix, Telegram, and Vimeo.

Thailand

Online freedoms are dwindling in Thailand due to a number of laws that escalate the level of government surveillance and censorship. Expressing disapproval of the royal family’s deeds is strictly forbidden. Facebook has faced issues over content blacklisted by Thai authorities in the past, and so has BBC. Some well-known local activists have ended up in jail for expressing their views.

It is common knowledge that the warm climate and exotic places in Thailand lure foreign travelers, especially IT professionals, some of whom spend months or even years there. This popularity might not get along with the fact that Freedom House rates the country as “Not Free.”

The advocacy body lists the criminal prosecution of bloggers and online content filtering as the top concerns. In 2016, there were several reports about social network users being arrested for their posts that criticized the government.

A recent law allows up to ten years of imprisonment for blurred felonies such as influencing voters. This initiative emerged amid the discussions regarding new proposed changes to the constitution of Thailand. In 2017, a more impactful wave of Internet censorship gained momentum in the country.

Online freedom watchdogs note an overlapping of past civil unrest incidents with the escalation of online censorship. In response to the 2014 military coup, the government has even tried to deploy a cutting-edge mass surveillance technology and a unified Internet content filtering system.

Conclusion

Governments in Asian countries are gradually tightening the grip in terms of Internet freedom. Bloggers, social media users, and news sites run the risk of being penalized for daring to criticize the authorities. Perhaps the most unnerving trend, though, is that the suppression of public opinion is becoming the norm in developed oriental countries that have a long track record of adhering to democratic principles.

 

Contributed by David Balaban, computer security researcher

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