China and Vietnam are among five “State Enemies of the Internet” identified Tuesday by a global media watchdog, which for the first time also listed an equal number of private-sector companies accused of selling monitoring equipment to repressive regimes, thereby helping police to track and jail political dissidents.
Based in the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, and Italy, these companies “sell products that are used by authoritarian governments to violate human rights and freedom of information,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in its report “Enemies of the Internet 2013.”
RSF identified the companies—Gamma, Trovicor, Hacking Team, Amesys, and Blue Coat—in its report as “digital mercenaries” and as “Corporate Enemies of the Internet.”
“Their products have been or are being used to commit violations of human rights and freedom of information,” the rights group said.
“If those companies decided to sell to authoritarian regimes, they must have known that their products could be used to spy on journalists, dissidents and netizens."
Reporters Without Borders called on governments to introduce controls on the export of surveillance software and hardware to countries that flout fundamental rights, saying, “The private sector cannot be expected to police itself.”
Vietnam and China meanwhile were listed in the report as two of five “spy states,” together with Syria, Iran, and Bahrain.
“Surveillance in these countries targets dissidents and has grown in recent months,” RSF’s report said. “Cyber-attacks and intrusions, including the use of malware against dissidents and their networks, are on the increase.”
Malware is short for malicious software created by Internet attackers to disrupt computer operations and gather sensitive information.
In Vietnam, where about one third of its 91.5 million population use the Internet, the “blogosphere is the main target” of monitoring and surveillance by the state, RSF’s report said.
Some 31 netizens are now in jail in Vietnam for writing or passing on political views deemed unacceptable by the country’s one-party government, by RSF’s count.
“The state controls all communications. Opinions that oppose the state are not made public,” said Vietnamese netizen Huynh Ngoc Chienh, quoted in the report.
“So many people use blogs to make their opinions known. But the government shuts these blogs. And many bloggers are arrested. And they are harassed, along with their families.”
Meanwhile, in China—described by RSF as “one of the world’s biggest digital empires, if not the biggest”—some 60 netizens are now behind bars for expressing their thoughts.
“China jails more people involved in news and information than any other country,” RSF said.
In a move aimed at heightening state scrutiny of online dissent, China introduced legislation a year ago requiring all new users of micro-blogging sites to register using their own name and telephone number.
Internet service providers are now “directly responsible to the authorities for surveillance of their networks to ensure banned messages are not circulated,” RSF said.
List 'could be longer'
By focusing its 2013 report only on the subject of online surveillance, and not on other forms of censorship, RSF has produced a list this year that is “far from exhaustive,” the rights group said.
“The fact that countries that figured in the 2012 list of “Enemies of the Internet” do not appear in the 2013 list does not mean there has been any improvement in online freedom of information in those countries,” it said.
Burma and North Korea, for example, are still listed as Enemies of the Internet, said RSF spokesperson Delphine Halgand.
“We could actually have added more countries to the ‘under surveillance’ list like Pakistan and Great Britain. [But] the lists would have been too long,” Halgand told RFA.
“We decided to focus on five states and five companies, and we will continue to update the website with precise analysis on other countries and other companies in the next few months.”