China ranks worst in world for internet freedom, says report

China’s internet was found to be the most restrictive, while web access in Iceland and Estonia were jointly the most free © Getty

By Emily Feng in Beijing
2017-11-14

China has been awarded the dubious title of the country with the world’s worst internet freedoms, taking top spot for the third consecutive year over the likes of Syria and Iran, according to a new report.

The study by Freedom House, a US state-funded non-profit organisation, found that a new regulations have further tightened already heavily restricted Chinese access to cyber space.

The report ranked countries on a 100-point scale based on three broad categories: obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights.

The higher the score, the more restrictive a country’s internet controls — at 87 points, China’s internet was found to be the most restrictive, while web access in Iceland and Estonia were jointly the most free at 6 points.

“One of the most worrying developments is the new cyber security law where companies have a greater onus to engage in censorship of their users,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

The law, which took effect in June, requires multinationals in China to store user data. Companies such as Apple have already begun building new data storage facilities in the country to comply.

There’s the mirage of having ordinary people enjoying freedom when the reality is anything but

Maya Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch

Chinese companies have created an entirely different ecosystem of online services to replace those blocked by the country’s “great firewall” censorship apparatus, but they are vulnerable to government surveillance, say human rights advocates.

“There’s the mirage of having ordinary people enjoying freedom when the reality is anything but,” said Maya Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Freedom House’s report said these domestic platforms have increasingly come under pressure to self-censor. China’s cyber space authorities have punished tech giants such as Baidu and Tencent for hosting what Beijing deems illicit content, fining them nominal amounts but signalling a shift towards outsourcing censorship to private companies and individuals.

Amnesty’s Mr Nee pointed to a September regulation that holds group administrators on WeChat, Tencent’s messaging platform, responsible for any illicit content posted as a sign of worsening internet freedoms.

“The policy framework has become more restrictive this year. That the government can hold people responsible for the conduct of others now is very worrying,” he said.

Freedom House also cited regulations that tightened freedoms within online discussion spaces. Users must use real-name verification on social media platforms while June’s cyber security law places more explicit content regulations on online news, social media and even livestreaming platforms.

“This year’s censorship is even less visible and has been about plugging holes once deemed too trivial, like VPNs or entertainment,” said Ms Wang.

China’s cyber space authorities impose annual crackdowns on virtual private networks, which allow internet users to bypass China’s firewall. However, interference on “unapproved VPNs” caused especially large disruptions in the lead-up to October’s Communist party congress, the country’s most important political gathering that is held every five years.

The report also described how China’s censors have more frequently cut off access to mobile internet connectivity among marginalised or religious populations in Tibet and the western region of Xinjiang, while stepping up direct monitoring of citizens there.

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