Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines were among dozens of countries that moved toward digital authoritarianism this year by embracing a Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance, an independent watchdog group said in its annual report.
The Asian nations were among 36 worldwide that exhibited dwindling freedom online, Washington-based democracy monitor Freedom House reported.
“Democracies are struggling in the digital age, while China is exporting its model of censorship and surveillance to control information both inside and outside its borders,” Freedom House President Michael J. Abramowitz said in a statement, which accompanied the online release this week of the group’s “2018 Freedom on the Net” report.
The group monitored 65 countries to produce the study, which encompassed 12 months up to May this year.
Beijing, according to the report, was the most effective censor of the internet and it did not taper off moves to export its standards around the world.
The report effectively propped up claims from online freedom advocates that China was continuing its Great Firewall, which, according to analysts, involved the country’s most sophisticated system of conducting online surveillance and internet censorship.
“China was once again the worst abuser of internet freedom in 2018,” Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House research director for technology and democracy, wrote in his report.
“A cohort of countries is moving toward digital authoritarianism by embracing the Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems,” he said. “As a result of these trends, global internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year.”
As part of its multilateral efforts, Beijing is cultivating “media elites” and government ministers around the world to create a network of countries that will follow its lead on internet policy, the report said.
Chinese officials have started seminars on new technology and begun training other countries on how to impose its model, the report said.
Media officials and prominent journalists from the Philippines visited China for two weeks in May 2018 to learn about “new media development,” Freedom House said. A similar conference for senior media staff from Thailand was described by Chinese news outlets as an opportunity for visitors to learn about “the Chinese Dream,” it said.
It is not always clear what transpires during such seminars, according to Freedom House, as it underscored that months after Beijing hosted a training for Vietnamese officials in April 2017, Hanoi introduced a cybersecurity law that closely mimics China’s own law.
During the past year, according to the report, rumors and hate speech that quickly spread on social media helped fuel deadly riots and violence in several countries, including Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India.
“A number of governments are moving to regulate social media users as media outlets in order to legitimize further crackdowns on online speech,” the report said, citing the arrest of Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam only hours after he live-streamed a video report on Facebook about a government crackdown on protesters in August.
If found guilty, Alam could receive up to 14 years in prison under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICT), which criminalizes online defamation.
On Thursday, the Bangladeshi High Court declined to grant Alam’s fifth bail petition since his arrest nearly three months ago.
Internet freedom was improving in Bangladesh after a break in a years-long trend of violence targeting secular bloggers and less arrests – until early 2018, when the government approved the draft of the Digital Security Act 2018, which is more draconian than its predecessor, the 2006 ICT Act, Freedom House said.
“The coverage period saw fewer reports of violence in reprisal for online speech, although there was a resurgence in a disturbing trend of unknown actors manipulating Facebook posts to instigate attacks on religious minorities,” the report said.
Changes in privacy policies felt worldwide
In response to fears about insecurity of personal data, many countries are enacting legislation that grants individuals the right to control how their data is collected and shared, Freedom House said, citing that at least 35 nations had already adopted laws on data protection.
Internet freedom in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, improved slightly in the past year due to decreasing violent attacks and threats against citizens for their online activities compared to the previous year, the report said.
Jakarta’s proposed laws on collection of personal data online bore a strong resemblance to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect in May 2018.
“It is not a silver bullet for digital rights,” the report said, explaining that the regulation does not apply to matters of national security and defense, thus failing to curtail rampant data collection by governments.
“Nevertheless, censorship of online content remained prevalent,” it said. “Over the past year, more social media platforms suffered from blocking under the pretext of countering fake news, terrorism, and pornography.”
Thailand’s internet freedom ‘improved slightly’
Despite remaining “Not Free” for the fifth year in a row, internet freedom improved slightly in Thailand due to increased access and less direct violence against online journalists and other online users, the report said.
The junta-led government of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, which took power after a military coup four year ago, “continued to consolidate its control over telecommunication infrastructure despite increased internet access for Thais,” it said.
It cited the establishment of the state-controlled National Broadband Network Company and National Gateway and Data Center, which were both established during the past 12 months.
Thailand implemented the amended Computer Related Crimes Act (CCA) in May 2017, despite significant opposition from internet freedom activists.
After overthrowing the government of Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22, 2014, Prayuth, who was then the army chief, dissolved parliament, detained political leaders and imposed a curfew while promising to bring Thailand back to democracy within 18 months.
Prayuth has yet to provide a concrete timeframe for a general election, although the 64-year-old leader has announced plans for a vote in February 2019.
A recent Human Rights Watch report said that the junta had repeatedly failed to fulfill pledges made to the U.N. General Assembly to respect human rights and democratic rule. Instead, it said, Prayuth curtailed people’s rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.
As of March, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta is formally known, has also prosecuted at least 94 people since taking power on charges of violating Lese-Majeste, a royal defamation law under which offenders can be sentenced to as many as 15 years in prison for sharing a story on Facebook, according to iLaw, an advocacy group for online law education.
Freedom House urged governments around the world to enact strong laws and protect personal data, ensuring all web-related legislation and practices were in line with international laws and standards on human rights.