FOR the second consecutive year, China has been found to be the worst abuser of Internet freedom in the world, according to a report released by human rights watchdog Freedom House.
In the 2016 Freedom on the Net survey report released Monday, the watchdog said the Chinese government’s crackdown on free expression under President Xi Jinping’s information security policy is taking its toll on the digital activists who have traditionally fought back against censorship and surveillance.
“Harsh punishments for expression and a deteriorating legal environment are significantly undermining civil society activism on the internet,” the report said.
Fearing prosecution, Internet users have increased self-censorship, especially following restrictions introduced in 2015 and dozens of arrests related to online expression.
Digital activism, the watchdog said, has been gradually waning against the backdrop of stricter Internet control across all platforms.
China recently amended its laws to add seven-year prison terms for those guilty of spreading “rumours” on social media, a charge that has often been used on dissidents. Some users from minority groups have also been put behind bars for watching religious videos on their mobile devices.
Freedom House pointed out that dozens of domestic Internet users in recent years were investigated for digital crimes, from disseminating misinformation to promoting tools to circumvent censorship. It also cited the case of one Uyghur teenager who was reported to have been imprisoned for life for watching banned videos on a cellphone.
While some individuals are still outspoken, the watchdog quoted observers as noting a decline in the lively discussion of social causes, which used to characterise popular microblogs.
Recently, Chinese regulators introduced new rules for online news outlets, audiovisual content, and digital publishing.
Avenues for anonymous communication were also gradually on the decline as service providers continued to implement real-name registration on all customers. In August this year, apps which relied on Internet connectivity to provide other services also required registration of users.
“Free expression and privacy were undermined through heightened pressure on companies providing Internet services and content to comply with censorship orders and user data requests,” the report said.
Among the other media outlets banned on the Chinese Internet, the London-based magazine Economist and the Hong Kong–based South China Morning Post were newly blocked in the mainland, as were articles and commentaries about sensitive events including a deadly chemical blast in Tianjin in 2015.
Focusing on developments that occurred between June 2015 and May 2016, the survey, which is in its seventh series, is a comprehensive study of Internet freedom in 65 countries around the globe, covering 88 percent of the world’s Internet users and tracks improvements and declines in governments’ policies and practices each year.
Overall, the study found that Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year.
Among the key findings, Freedom house found that two-thirds of all Internet users – 67 percent – live in countries where criticism of the government, military, or ruling family are subject to censorship.
The watchdog said governments have targeted social media and communication apps as a means of halting the rapid dissemination of information more than ever before, particularly during anti-government protests.
“Public-facing social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been subject to growing censorship for several years, but in a new trend, governments increasingly target voice communication and messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram.”
Social media users, it said, faced unprecedented penalties, as authorities in 38 countries made arrests based on social media posts over the past year.
Globally, 27 percent of all Internet users live in countries where people have been arrested for publishing, sharing, or merely “liking” content on Facebook.