China and Vietnam have stepped up Internet controls while reclusive North Korea is using "increasingly sophisticated" means to spread disinformation by stringently restricting online access, global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said Wednesday in a new report which maintained the three nations as the world’s top “Enemies of the Internet.”
China’s Great Firewall, as its censorship system is known, is getting “higher,” Vietnam’s new decree to suppress online dissent is “even tougher” than previous Internet laws, and North Korea has special squads to enforce its “wall of silence,” said the Paris-based body’s annual report released to mark World Day Against Cyber-Censorship.
It listed North Korea’s Central Scientiﬁc and Technological Information Agency, Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications, and China’s State Internet Information Office as among 31 state-run bodies “using defense of national security as grounds for going far beyond their original mission in order to spy on and censor journalists, bloggers and other information providers.”
Reporters Without Borders said this year, its Enemies of the Internet report focused on institutions and agencies that implemented online censorship and surveillance in countries that it had blacklisted.
In China, the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) runs the world’s “most sophisticated” Internet censorship system by relying heavily on self-censorship by netizens and the cooperation of Internet companies, the group said.
Under the SIIO’s guidance, China remains the world biggest prison for netizens, with at least 70 people currently in jail because of their online activities, the group said.
Internet control is reinforced whenever the authorities are particularly concerned about the possibility of unrest or protests, and the ethnic autonomous regions of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia are subject to stringent measures.
Politically sensitive stories also do not escape the eye of the censors. In January, Beijing disconnected the Internet for several hours just to stop the circulation of reports about the use of offshore tax havens by members of the Chinese elite.
But as China tries to introduce “ever stricter controls” on Internet use and access to international content, the country’s cyber-censorship model is being stretched to the limit by the exponential growth in users and the steadily expanding volume of available content, Reporters Without Borders said.
Nevertheless, China’s President Xi Jinping, who took the helm of a cybersecurity committee two weeks ago, is bolstering efforts to retain a tight grip on the Internet as he aims to turn the country into a “cyber power.”
In Vietnam, authorities have deployed a judicial administrative and technological “strike force” based in the Ministry of Information and Communications to control online information, Reporters Without Borders said.
Internet businesses and service providers function as the country’s “main web surveillance agencies,” blocking “malicious” sites on government orders, the report said.
To police content, authorities also rely on strict legislation issued as decrees from the prime minister, and on the shadowing and tapping of outspoken netizens, it said.
Decree 174, which went into effect in January, has given greater latitude to authorities to charge bloggers for “anti-state” crimes,” following the stringent Decree 72 introduced in September that makes it illegal to digitally distribute content that opposes the government, or even to share news stories on social media.
Officials have also expanded their use of a “nuisance” approach of targeting of online dissidents with in-person monitoring, to the point where being followed in the street and other forms of surveillance “have become a part of daily life” for Vietnamese bloggers, the report said.
In North Korea, the Central Scientific and Technological Information Agency, which runs the country’s own Intranet, helps keep most of the population isolated from the rest of the world and from the domestic network.
Special units such as Group 109 and Department 27 track down those with contraband digital devices smuggled in from outside the country.
North Korea has continued developing its Intranet in recent years, not with the aim of keeping its citizen informed but with an eye to expanding the regime’s ability to broadcast ideology and strengthen employees’ technical skills, the report said.
“North Korea is one of the few countries where censorship can be seen by what is online, rather than what is missing.”
Censorship in democracies too
The Chinese, Vietnamese, and North Korean Internet surveillance institutions were joined on Reporters Without Borders’ list by government bodies responsible for Internet censorship in democratic countries it said were traditionally considered respectful of human rights—the U.S., the U.K., and India.
“The NSA in the United States, GCHQ in the United Kingdom and the Centre for Development of Telematics in India are no better than their Chinese, Russian, Iranian or Bahraini counterparts,” the group said.
Reporters Without Borders has in the past named countries instead of government agencies to its list of Enemies of the Internet, but this year said it was focusing on the institutions responsible for censorship in order to “draw attention to the schizophrenic attitude towards online freedoms that prevails in some countries.”
Raising concerns about rising cyber-censorship the world over, Reporters Without Borders urged the United Nations to take measures to protect and introduce guidelines to protect online freedoms.
The U.N. should consider creating through the Human Rights Council a working group on digital freedoms, it said.
It called for stricter penalties on companies that provide authoritarian regimes with software used to spy on and imprison dissidents, urging the U.N. to consider international conventions on the export of Internet surveillance technology and on the human rights responsibilities of businesses.