China’s strategy of controlling social media content has become a particularly potent model for other authoritarian countries, a study by Freedom House said Monday, amid reports that Beijing is sending experts or hackers to help some governments impose Internet restrictions.
The independent U.S. watchdog made the observation in its annual report on Internet freedom in which it warned about the threat of brutal attacks by governments against bloggers, politically motivated surveillance, "proactive" manipulation of web content, and restrictive laws regulating speech online.
Despite these threats, the report "Freedom on the Net 2012: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media" found that increased push-back by civil society, technology companies, and independent courts have resulted in several notable victories to maintain Internet freedom.
“The findings clearly show that threats to Internet freedom are becoming more diverse. As authoritarian rulers see that blocked websites and high-profile arrests draw local and international condemnation, they are turning to murkier—but no less dangerous—methods for controlling online conversations,” said Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom on the Net at Freedom House.
China, home to the world’s largest population of Internet users but also the most advanced system of control, has exerted a greater influence in the online world, emerging as an "incubator" for sophisticated new types of Internet restrictions, the report said.
"The Chinese method for controlling social media content—restricting access to international networks while coercing their domestic alternatives to robustly censor and monitor user communications according to the ruling Chinese Communist Party directives—has become a particularly potent model for other authoritarian countries," it said.
Belarus’s autocratic president, for example, has praised China’s Internet controls, and Uzbekistan has introduced several social media platforms on which users must register with their real names and administrators have preemptively deleted politically sensitive posts.
In Iran, a prominent Internet specialist likened the intended outcome of the country’s proposed National Internet scheme to the Chinese censorship model, with users enjoying “expansive local connections,” but having their foreign communications filtered through a “controllable channel,” according to the report.
Meanwhile, Freedom House said reports have emerged of Chinese experts, telecommunications companies, or hackers assisting the governments of Ethiopia, Libya, Sri Lanka, Iran, and Zimbabwe with attempts to enhance their technical capacity to censor, monitor, or carry out cyber attacks against regime opponents.
Alongside China, countries such as Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have recently increased efforts on the international stage to institutionalize some of the restrictions they already implement within their own borders, the report said.
Freedom on the Net 2012, which identifies key trends in Internet freedom in 47 countries, evaluated each country based on barriers to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.
The study found that Estonia had the greatest degree of Internet freedom among the countries examined, while the United States ranked second. Iran, Cuba, and China received the lowest scores in the analysis.
Eleven other countries received a ranking of Not Free, including Belarus, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Thailand.
A total of 20 of the 47 countries examined experienced a "negative trajectory" in Internet freedom since January 2011, with Bahrain, Pakistan, and Ethiopia registering the greatest declines.
In Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, and China, authorities imposed new restrictions after observing the key role that social media played in the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
At the same time, 14 countries registered a positive trajectory, with Tunisia and Burma experiencing the largest improvements following dramatic political openings.
It listed "countries at risk"—seen as particularly "vulnerable to deterioration" in the coming 12 months—as Azerbaijan, Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka.
The study warned that certain methods to stifle Internet freedom that were previously employed only in the "most oppressive" environments have become more widely utilized.
To counter the growing influence of independent voices online, an increasing number of states are turning to proactive manipulation of web content, rendering it more challenging for regular users to distinguish between credible information and government propaganda, the report said.
"Regimes are covertly hiring armies of pro-government bloggers to tout the official point of view, discredit opposition activists, or disseminate false information about unfolding events," it said.
"This practice was in the past largely limited to China and Russia, but over the last year, it has been adopted in more than a quarter of the countries examined."
Based on the types of controls implemented, Freedom House said many of the countries examined in the report can be divided into three categories:
* Blockers: The governments block a large number of politically relevant websites, often imposing complete barriers on certain social media platforms. Among the countries that fall into this category are Bahrain, China, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Syria, Thailand, and Uzbekistan.
* Non-blockers: Most often, these governments seek the appearance that their country has a free Internet, and prefer to employ less visible or less traceable censorship tactics. Among the countries that fall into this category are Azerbaijan, Egypt, Jordan, Malaysia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
* Nascent blockers: These countries—including Belarus, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Russia—have started imposing politically motivated blocks, but the system has not yet been institutionalized, and it is often sporadic.
Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.