Asia is a controversial region when it comes to civil liberties in general and internet freedom in particular. Even in countries such as Japan and Singapore, which have a high level of technological progress and breathtaking Internet penetration, the Internet is increasingly becoming a regulated environment.
Residents of some Asian countries are severely punished, including criminally, for expressing their opinions on social networks and personal blogs. The same goes for news sites. To silence them, the authorities have passed draconian laws introducing online censorship.
Strengthening the rules of cyberspace is not only a problem for local internet users. Since Asia is the Mecca for many foreign travellers and cyber travellers, knowledge of these events is a prerequisite for a smooth stay in these countries.
This article examines the risks of online privacy and the level of online censorship in Asia to give you an overview.
Japan is a world leader in Internet penetration, with 91% of the population connected to the Internet. Although online censorship and government interference in citizens’ activities on the Internet are moderate, the situation is gradually changing. This explains why the VPN tools are becoming increasingly popular in the country of the rising sun, both with locals and foreign visitors.
The Japanese authorities are doing everything they can to stop the power. Penalties for violations of applicable laws can be up to 10 million yen (about $95,000) in fines and two years imprisonment.
Downloading copyrighted material in this way is unlikely to have serious legal consequences, but downloading or landing such material is risky and may lead to arrest. In 2013, 27 people were imprisoned for downloading music videos, comic books, anime and video games without the official blessing of their owners.
The renowned human rights organization Freedom House called Japan Free because of restrictions on social networking services, access to content or the removal of known bloggers. The Constitution promotes general internet freedom, as its provisions prohibit censorship and protect all forms of expression.
The caveat is that national security considerations may force the government to adopt stricter tactics. In 2013, the Japanese legislator passed a law criminalizing the disclosure of all kinds of state secrets, regardless of intent. Freedom House points out that the document (the so-called Protection of Specially Identified Secrets Act) may have negative consequences for journalists and public observers.
Since then, the UN Commission on Human Rights has expressed similar concerns. The intergovernmental organisation points out that the law does not clearly define the types of data leaks that are criminalised. As the perpetrators of such acts are severely punished, the law threatens to silence journalists and human rights activists.
These controversial rules have emerged in the context of a proposal by the country’s Ministry of Communications to start monitoring the Internet. These provisions should impose restrictions on popular online news agencies similar to those supervising physical television channels and newspapers. According to the report, the government should intervene because Internet Service Providers (ISPs) may not be able to assess the consequences of certain crimes.
Shinzo Abe, former Prime Minister of Japan, was known for his initiatives to suppress the freedom of the media. His government is said to have overpowered several powerful media watchdogs and fired some witty journalists in 2016.
In response to this disturbing trend, the United Nations has launched a mission to assess the scale and depth of the problem. As part of this initiative, its representatives met with journalists, educators and government officials. The verdict was that the independent press in Japan was under heavy pressure.
Shortly after UN Special Rapporteur David Kay announced his findings, the press freedom index fell by 11 places to 72 out of 180 countries in the east.
In a publication of Foreign Policy News it was discovered that the Japanese secret service had supervised the UN mission. Her employees followed the movements of a local lawyer who facilitated the work of the research team.
On the positive side, despite the stricter regulations, no cases of arrest of press representatives have been reported so far. However, persons accused of revealing state secrets can be sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.
Although Singapore is a small city state in Southeast Asia, the country is a commercial and technological giant in the region. However, the inhabitants have only limited freedom on the internet. Downloading and distributing NSFW content (e.g. sexually explicit videos or images) is strictly prohibited. You will not be in trouble if you accidentally access the adult site, but you should not try to download these documents.
The Singaporean legislation of 2014 also prohibits the downloading of copyrighted content. Previously, the owner of these data had to submit a formal notification to the infringer’s ISP to block access to the content. The weakness of this mechanism was that the supplier was not obliged to meet demand.
Although the internet penetration rate in the city-state is 82.5%, Freedom House has classified its online ecosystem as partially free. The human rights organisation’s report refers to the criminal prosecution of online bloggers and the restrictions on freedom of expression in Singapore.
Between 2015 and 2016, several cases were reported in which bloggers and media representatives were punished for misconduct, ranging from insulting religious communities to defaming the Prime Minister.
The country’s Internet landscape has changed negatively in recent years as a result of government initiatives to monitor online publications and destroy sites that point to political corruption. A number of bloggers and social media users are also locked up for expressing their opinions.
If you are browsing websites from a Malaysian IP address, you will also encounter cases of censorship. A number of internet sources, including news sites and blogs, have been blocked due to criticism of the authorities.
These discouraging events are at the heart of Freedom House’s assessment of partially free Malaysian cyberspace. The organisation refers in particular to the government’s attempts to silence journalists.
Local authorities withdrew their alleged obligation to keep the internet uncensored in 2016 when they blocked access to various means that shed light on the corruption scandals surrounding Prime Minister Najib Razzaq. As part of this controversial decision, the popular information site The Malaysian Insider was forced to close and the online publication centre Medium was also curtailed.
This pressure is a serious problem in a country where about 70% of the population is connected to the Internet. Malaysia overtakes Thailand and the Philippines on this criterion and lags slightly behind Singapore.
It is known that the Malaysian authorities have invested heavily in expanding internet coverage throughout the country through mobile broadband communications in rural areas. While undoubtedly commendable, these efforts have raised political awareness and paved the way for more criticism of the authorities.
According to the Electronic Border Foundation (EFF), censorship of cyberspace in the country is on the rise as the government attempts to weaken any online discussion about political corruption.
In order to supplement these initiatives with insults, the government intends to intensify them by amending existing regulations, such as the Media and Multimedia Act and the State Secrets Act. As a result of these changes, the government can continue to exert influence on Internet service providers, Internet information services and individuals on the Internet.
Internet censorship is widespread in this Asian country. Its laws prohibit the downloading of adult content and even the use of certain social networking resources. It is not surprising that Indonesia has the status of Freedom House – Partial Freedom House.
The main task is to filter the internet content by blocking certain social networks. The authorities say they follow this path to get rid of false messages, terrorism and sexually explicit content.
These efforts are facilitated by the Cyber Drone 9 artificial intelligence system, which automatically identifies the materials to be blocked. The main web services censored in Indonesia are Reddit, Netflix, Telegram and Vimeo.
Online freedoms in Thailand are limited by a series of laws that have raised the level of government control and censorship. It is strictly forbidden to disapprove of the actions of the royal family. In the past, Facebook, like the BBC, has had problems with the content of the blacklists of the Thai authorities. Some prominent local activists have been imprisoned for expressing their views.
It is well known that Thailand’s warm climate and exotic locations attract foreign travelers, especially IT professionals, who sometimes stay here for months or even years. This popularity cannot accept that Freedom House considers the country as not free.
The protection agency mentions the criminal prosecution of bloggers and the filtering of online content as the main problems. In 2016 there were several reports of arrests of social media users for holding positions in which they criticised the government.
A recently adopted law provides for a prison sentence of up to ten years for vague crimes such as voter influence. This initiative arose in the context of discussions on new proposals for constitutional amendments in Thailand. A wave of more effective internet censorship in the country will accelerate in 2017.
Supporters of online freedom have pointed to the overlap between past civil unrest and the escalation of online censorship. In response to the military coup of 2014, the government has even tried to introduce advanced mass surveillance technology and a unique filtering system for Internet content.
Asian governments are gradually tightening their control over the freedom of the Internet. Bloggers, users of social networks and news sites run the risk of being punished for having the courage to criticise the authorities. The most worrying trend, however, is that the repression of public opinion is becoming the norm in the developed countries of the East, which have long adhered to democratic principles.
The contribution of David Balaban, a researcher in the field of computer security.
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