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China Chapter – Freedom House's 2012 Freedom on the Net Report

Freedom House, an U.S based watchdog organization on issues related with freedom and democracy around the globe, has published its 2012 Freedom on the Net report recently. In fact, China has increased 2 points in the net freedom index to 85 and became the least free in Asia, behind Pakistan, Burma, and Vietnam. While Burma's has significant improvement with its score leap to 75 in this year's list from 88 in 2011.

Below are some highlights of the latest development of Net freedom status in China in 2011 as depicted in Freedom House report.

Freedom House's report: Freedom on the Net 2012

Regional shutdown of access

The practice of regional shutdown began from the Xinjiang riot in 2009 and since then has been used to contain the spread of information in politically sensitive mass incidents:

The Chinese government has been known to shut down access to entire communications systems in response to specific events…. in December 2011, around the village of Wukan in Guangdong, after residents revolted against local officials over illegal land grabs; and in February 2012 in Tibetan areas of Sichuan, after clashes surrounding a series selfimmolations and reports that soldiers had opened fire on civilians. In a partial shut down, beginning May 30, 2011, nearly all Mongolian chat rooms, discussion forums, blogs and instant messaging platforms, as well as many text-messaging services, were shut down for about a month in Inner Mongolia surrounding protests that erupted after a Mongolian herder was killed.

As all ISPs must obtain a license from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), the international gateways are under strict control of the Chinese government. Thus most of the popular web platforms, such as Youtube, Facebook are remained blocked:

The system essentially creates a national intranet and gives the authorities the ability to cut off any cross-border information requests that are deemed undesirable.

New censor body and corporate self-discipline

To tackle with the explosion of public opinion in domestic micro-blog, in addition to the filtering, blockquote of political sensitive words, the government created a new agency, the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) to streamline censorship procedures in May 2011 and pressured leading internet firms to tighten “self-discipline”:

According to Sina executives, the firm has a “very powerful content censorship” system in place, which includes both automated and human monitoring 24 hours a day, run by hundreds of employees. Sina Weibo users consistently report diverse measures employed by the company to prevent the circulation of politically sensitive content on a range of topics—deleting individual posts, deceiving users by making posts appear to them to have been published but actually rendering them invisible to followers, shuttering accounts, and removing results from the application’s search function.

Arrest, re-education, detention and imprisonment

Laws such as Inciting State Subversion, State Subversion and Leaking of State Secret, are often used to prosecute internet users who expose government scandal or organize protest. That's why the prison sentences for online violations tend to be longer in China. Even for minor cases, such as defamation of government officials and spreading of rumors, the sentence can still be up to 3 years. Some users are sentenced without trial to re-education through labor camps.

The year 2011 was notable, in particular, for a spate of extralegal abductions and long prison terms imposed in connection with online calls for a Jasmine revolution in China. … Beginning in February 2011, dozens of lawyers, activists, and bloggers who had been active both on domestic and international social media were abducted one after another in what became one of the worst crackdowns on free expression in China in recent memory. According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, at least 78 people were known to have been taken into custody as of June 2011, either formally or extralegally. In most cases, families were not notified of the detainee’s whereabouts or grounds for detention. Many of the activists later reported abuse in custody, including beatings, forcible medication, sleep deprivation, and other forms of mistreatment that caused one lawyer to contract tuberculosis in only 21 days.

Real name registration extended to micro-blogging platforms

Since 2009, major web-portals have adopted real-name registration for their services, in 2011, the requirement has extended to social media tools:

In December 2011, five major cities (Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Shenzhen) announced they would begin requiring microblog services, including the popular Sina Weibo and Tencent, to implement real-name registration. The deadline set for registration was March 16. Those who refused would reportedly have the function enabling them to post messages disabled. …In April, Sina noted in its annual report to the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) that many users had not yet complied, that it feared full implementation would cause its traffic and usage to decline dramatically, and that its ongoing failure to execute full registration exposed it to potentially “severe punishment” by the government.

Internet and mobile surveillance

Online and mobile communications are under surveillance:

In some free expression cases, private instant-messaging conversations or text messages have been directly cited in court documents…Various service providers (including ISPs, bulletin boards, and email providers) are required to retain user information for 60 days and provide it to the authorities upon request without independent judicial oversight…In recent years, additional intrusive elements have been added to the surveillance apparatus. In March 2011, Beijing's municipal government announced that it would begin using technology to track the location of the city’s 17 million mobile phone users in real time.

Cyberattack

Activists and journalists are major targets for cyber-attack:

The assaults have included distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on domestic and overseas groups that report on human rights abuses, such as Human Rights in China, Aizhixing, Boxun, Falun Gong websites, ChinaAid, and Chinese Human Rights Defenders. In April 2011, the website Change.org, which at the time was carrying a petition calling for the release of Ai Weiwei that had quickly garnered tens of thousands of signatures, was disabled by a sophisticated DDoS attack reportedly originating in China. In June 2011, Google reported that hundreds of Gmail accounts had been targeted by attacks originating in China. Among those targeted were “senior U.S. government officials, Chinese political activists, officials in several Asian countries (predominantly South Korea), military personnel and journalists.”

However, Chinese netizens are still actively negotiated with the web-censor:

due to the egalitarian nature and technical flexibility of the internet, the online environment remains freer and Chinese citizens more empowered than what is possible in the traditional media sector. Although Twitter remains blocked in China, a growing number of Chinese users are circumventing censorship to reach it and other restricted sites. Meanwhile domestic microblogging services like Sina Weibo have grown
rapidly, surpassing 300 million users by early 2012. Their influence as a source of news and an outlet for public opinion has correspondingly grown. Microblogs’ speed of transmission and other censorship loopholes enabled netizens to outpace censors, draw attention to incipient scandals, and mount online campaigns on various topics.

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