Internet freedom in East Asia is exemplified by a key paradox – even as access expands exponentially and social-media tools open new avenues for information sharing, freedom of expression and user privacy online are declining. Governments in the region are taking increasing measures to regulate not only the spread of internationally recognized harmful content, but also citizen communications on topics of vital social, political, religious, and security relevance. Leading the region’s most robust such campaign is the ruling Communist Party of China.
These countervailing trends – part of a similar global trajectory – are especially evident and important in North and Southeast Asia, home to approximately one-third of the world’s Internet users and several of its leading economies. While restrictions are perhaps expected in authoritarian contexts, they have also appeared in the region’s democratic and semi-democratic countries.
Seven out of the 11 East Asian countries assessed in the latest edition of Freedom on the Net, Freedom House’s annual index of Internet freedom around the world, declined compared to the previous year: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. Only two – Myanmar and Malaysia – improved, while Japan and Cambodia’s performance remained consistent.
One central dynamic driving this decline and threatening Internet freedom across the region has been the passage of new laws or regulations that increase censorship or establish provisions that could be employed to punish users for their online writings. In many cases, the new rules specifically target Internet communications.
For example, Thailand’s new ruling junta issued Order 97 in July, prohibiting online media from publishing information critical of the regime. Meanwhile, Thai police were quoted as warning that “liking” an anti-military message on Facebook would be considered a crime. In Vietnam, Decree No. 72, which came into effect in September 2013, extends existing restrictions on sharing news articles from blogs to social networks. That same month, in China, a new judicial interpretation increased the criminalization of online speech based on an arbitrary threshold that posts with 500 shares or 5,000 views would be considered a more severe offense.