The latest Freedom on the Net report, published by the U.S.-funded organization Freedom House, does not make for particularly edifying reading. The annual report, which this year assessed the state of online freedom in 70 nations, found that global internet freedom declined for the 12th consecutive year, as nations moved to reinforce the borders between them.
Just 18 percent of the global internet population lives in nations that Freedom House deemed “free” during the June 2021-May 2022 coverage period, the report stated. More than three-quarters “now live in countries where authorities punish people for exercising their right to free expression online.”
“At home and on the international stage, authoritarians are on a campaign to divide the open internet into a patchwork of repressive enclaves,” the report stated by way of introduction. “More governments than ever are exerting control over what people can access and share online by blocking foreign websites, hoarding personal data, and centralizing their countries’ technical infrastructure.”
It stated that a “record number of governments [are] blocking political, social, or religious content, often targeting information sources based outside of their borders.” Techniques identified in the report include internet shutdowns, blocks on foreign websites and social media platforms, restrictions on circumvention tools like VPNs, and laws restricting foreign websites and content.
No region encapsulates this trend quite like Southeast Asia. None of the eight nations covered by the report rated as “free,” while five rated “partly free,” and three rated “not free.”
Of the eight, the Philippines rated the highest, with a score of 65 on the index’s scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). Even then, the situation was hardly reassuring: “physical assaults, and politicized lawsuits against government critics continued [in the coverage period], as did technical attacks against news outlets and civil society groups,” the report stated. It also flagged the swarm of disinformation that attended the presidential election in May, orchestrated by the campaigns of leading politicians, especially that of President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.
The Philippines was followed by Malaysia (69/100), where government website blocks and content removal persist, along with “criminal prosecutions and investigations for social media posts and other forms of online expression,” and Singapore (54/100), where recent legislation targeting foreign interference and disinformation “empower authorities to restrict online activity with broad latitude.”
In Indonesia (49/100), the report stated, “government critics, journalists, and ordinary users continued to face criminal charges and harassment in retaliation for their online activity,” while the authorities disrupted internet access during periods of unrest in Papua. The situation was worse still in Cambodia (43/100), where the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has migrated its informal but repressive legacy media controls to the online sphere. In particular, it mentioned the Cambodian government’s plan to establish a single national internet gateway that would facilitate greater censorship and surveillance.
In the “not free” category came Thailand (39/100) and Vietnam (22/100), the former by virtue of its repressive lese-majeste law, which has been wielded liberally against online comments that are even mildly critical of the country’s monarchy and its self-appointed military guardians. In Vietnam, the government enforced stringent controls over the country’s online environment” and “continued mandating that companies remove content and imposed draconian criminal sentences for online expression.”
The situation was unsurprisingly the grimmest in Myanmar (12/100), which has seen basic freedoms atrophy under the dead hand of the military junta that seized power in February 2021. Myanmar received the second-worst score in this year’s report (after only China), and saw the second-largest decline in internet freedom (after only Russia). “Since the military junta seized power from an elected civilian government in February 2021, it has cemented its censorship regime, blocking all but 1,200 websites, restricting access to major social media platforms, and imposing local internet shutdowns,” the report stated.
While these developments are cause for anguish, they are in many ways no surprise. It was not so long ago that the internet was seen by some as a borderless resource that would empower citizens against repressive governments, in a sort of frictionless progress toward greater democracy and accountability. It is therefore no surprise that those same repressive governments are taking the threat posed by this openness seriously – and moving to shore up their control of digital technologies.