Updated at 9:30 p.m. ET on 2013-10-03
Amid a global decline in Internet freedom, activists are increasingly pushing back against repressive Web controls, according to a new study released Thursday that highlighted deteriorating trends in China and Vietnam, Asia’s worst online oppressors.
Citizen activism online has seen a “significant uptick” worldwide over the past year as activists become more effective at raising awareness of emerging threats and forestalling repressive measures, U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House said in its annual “Freedom on the Net” survey.
In nearly a dozen countries, “negative” laws were deterred as a result of civic mobilization and pressure by activists, lawyers, the business sector, reform-minded politicians, and the international community, the study showed.
In a few countries, it said, civic activists were able to form coalitions and proactively lobby governments to pass laws that protect Internet freedom or amend previously restrictive legislation.
But at the same time, broad surveillance measures, new laws controlling web content, and more arrests of social media users have driven a worldwide decline in Internet freedom, it warned.
“While blocking and filtering remain the preferred methods of censorship in many countries, governments are increasingly looking at who is saying what online, and finding ways to punish them,” the project’s director Sanja Kelly said.
"More and more people who are being affected by this are everyday users who do not realize they are putting themselves in harm's way," she said at an event launching the report.
The report, which identifies key trends in 60 countries, evaluated each nation based on barriers to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.
In Asia, Vietnam and China suffered further downgrades in the survey compared to their 2012 scores, while Myanmar, on the back of reforms being implemented by reformist president Thein Sein, saw the highest jump out of all the countries examined.
The report warned of a “worsening cycle of repression” in Vietnam, where authorities have introduced new restrictive measures and the number of bloggers detained for posting content critical of the government has increased “dramatically” over the past two years.
China 'leading the way'
China, along with Cuba and Iran, received some of the lowest scores for the second year in a row in the survey, which does not include North Korea, noted for its repressive measures on freedom as a whole.
“As in previous years, China led the way in expanding and adapting elaborate technological apparatus for systemic Internet censorship, while further increasing offline arrests,” the report said.
China has been particularly successful in harnessing the private sector to further its censorship goals, with private companies hiring whole divisions to monitor and delete millions of online comments each year, it said.
Internet giant Google's freedom of expression and international relations head Ross LaJeunesse said at the launch event that company cooperation with the government in surveillance "remains a key part of that system."
"We have seen China being an important factor in exporting this practice to other parts of the world," he said.
Under the most elaborate system of Internet content control in the world in China, Tibetans and Uyghurs are “particularly vulnerable” to surveillance and prosecution, the report said.
But at the same time, growing net access has provided users with new tools to challenge policy, and online exposés of corruption have “forced authorities to acknowledge the problem” and in some cases punish the perpetrators.
"We are seeing activists successfully using online tools to reveal corruption and fight for environmental rights ... even in some of the most authoritarian states including China," Kelly said.
Increasing sophistication in Vietnam
In Vietnam, content filtering systems in the country are becoming increasingly sophisticated and officials have adopted new measures to manipulate content, this year admitting for the first time to paying online commentators to support the authorities in online discussions.
Despite the stricter controls, citizen journalism has emerged as important source of news for many Vietnamese, the report said.
But the newly introduced Decree 72, which compels international Internet companies to comply with government censorship and surveillance, “bodes ill” for Vietnam’s web users in the coming years.
'Significant steps' in Myanmar
The report praised “significant steps” toward lifting Internet censorship taken by Myanmar amid recent political reforms, but warned that draft laws currently under revision could intensify the content restrictions that are in existing laws.
An unforeseen consequence of the expansion of Internet use as Myanmar emerges from decades under military rule has been the expression of simmering ethnic distrust unleashed on social media, which has “cast a shadow” over the newly open Internet landscape.
Those who have undergone decades of information control and minority communities who fear further marginalization remain cautious of speaking out online, the report warned.
Cambodia's 'tide may be turning'
In Cambodia, which was included in the survey for the first time, a trend toward “digital democracy” is in danger of being reversed, the report warned.
Although new media and a growing generation of young people using social media has transformed the information landscape in Cambodia, the “tide may be turning,” the report said.
Since 2011 Cambodian authorities have blocked at least three Cambodian blogs known for politically sensitive content, and netizens fear a new draft cybercrime law could extend restrictions on traditional media online.
Overall, 34 out of 60 countries assessed in the report experienced a decline in Internet freedom, with the most significant downgrades in India, Brazil, the United States, and Venezuela.
Iceland and Estonia topped the list of countries with the greatest degree of Internet freedom.
The United States remained in the top five despite its “troubling decline” linked to revelations of government surveillance activities in documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.