Snapshot of internet freedom in Asia

United States-based watchdog Freedom House has released its Freedom on the Net 2017 report, covering developments between June 2016 and May 2017. 

Governments around the world have been increasing their efforts to manipulate information on social media, said the organisation. 

Online manipulation, disinformation, and disruption contributed to an overall decline in internet freedom, attacks on human rights defenders, and independent media. In at least 18 countries internationally, online manipulation and disinformation tactics played a role in elections.

Japan and the Philippines scored as “free”, while Freedom House ranked South Korea, India, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Bangladesh as “partly free”. The rest of Asia was either “not free” or not assessed.

Internet freedom in Asia – a snapshot 

• Freedom House describes China as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom. China recently moved to license certain VPN providers, and now block unlicensed VPNs. Chinese authorities also disrupt mobile connectivity in certain regions, targeting ethnic and religious groups such as Tibetan and Uighur communities, Freedom House writes.  

• Cambodia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and possibly Thailand have elections coming in 2018. Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand are at high risk for government repression of information during campaigns. Bangladesh and Pakistan are medium risk.

• Japan, meanwhile, has the best score for internet freedom in Asia but its freedom has declined slightly due to a “deteriorating surveillance environment”.

• The Philippines also scores comparatively well for internet freedom and access is improving. But freedom has declined overall in the past year. During the 2016 Philippine presidential election and in the subsequent administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, operators of fake social media accounts have actively spread supportive content and attacked the opposition.

• South Koreans effectively used digital resources to organise protests against impeached former president Park Geun-hye. The country has one of the highest internet penetration rates, but police and military officials have been accused of using online surveillance and seizing mobile phones without warrant to find and prosecute homosexual activity among military personnel.

• China, Thailand and Vietnam have all “passed or implemented” laws that may require companies or individuals to break encryption to allow official access to “confidential communications”.

• In the past year, the Singapore government has said it was seriously considering new laws to punish disseminators of “fake news”.

• In India, internet freedom has remained stable. Access has improved but those gains were offset by network and social media shutdowns ordered by authorities.

• Mobile internet penetration has increased dramatically in Myanmar, up to 90 percent. However, pressure and manipulation from the military and individuals, such as reporting offensive content on Facebook, keeps self-censorship high.

– Asia Media Centre