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China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

Although the internet was widely available, authorities heavily censored content. The government continued to employ tens of thousands of individuals at the national, provincial, and local levels to monitor electronic communications and online content. The government reportedly paid personnel to promote official views on various websites and social media and to combat alternative views posted online. Internet companies also independently employed thousands of censors to carry out CCP and government directives on censorship. When government officials criticized or temporarily blocked online platforms due to content, the parent corporations were required to hire additional in-house censors, creating substantial staffing demands well into the thousands and even tens of thousands per company.

In the first three weeks of January, the CAC closed 730 websites and 9,300 mobile apps, and during the second quarter of the year, it shuttered a total of 2,899 websites. The CAC announced that it had deleted more than seven million pieces of online information, and 9,382 mobile apps by April. These were deemed “harmful” due to inappropriate content, which included politically sensitive materials. For example, in July alone the CAC reportedly collected nearly 12 million “valid” reports of online “illegal and harmful” information.

The CAC also specifically ordered Tencent’s “Tiantian Kuaibao” news app to make changes, alleging it had been spreading “vulgar and low-brow information that was harmful and damaging to the internet ecosystem,” per the CAC statement. New approvals for offerings on Tencent’s gaming platforms were frozen for nine months in 2018 for any new video game approvals as part of an industry-wide tightening of the video game market, but this was the first time the news app had been criticized. Tencent’s popular messaging app WeChat announced in late February that it had closed more than 40,000 public accounts since the beginning of the year and removed 79,000 articles. The announcement stated the contents of the closed accounts were “false, exaggerated and vulgar” and that they “conveyed a culture of hopelessness and depression,” which “tarnished users’ taste” and the overall environment of the platform.

The law requires internet platform companies operating in the country to control content on their platforms or face penalties. According to Citizen Lab, China-based users of the WeChat platform are subject to automatic filtering of chat messages and images, limiting their ability to freely communicate.

On April 8, popular social media site Weibo (similar to Twitter and owned by Sina) announced it had suspended more than 50 popular accounts “according to relevant laws and regulations,” as they included “politically harmful information.” Account owners received notifications from Weibo that the suspensions would last 90 to 180 days. Account holders included Yu Jianrong, a prominent scholar of rural development and activist for the country’s peasants, who reportedly had not published information deemed sensitive for several years but had 7.2 million followers at the time his Weibo account shut down.

The government continued to issue an array of regulations implementing the Cybersecurity Law, which took effect in 2017. The law allows the government to “monitor, defend, and handle cybersecurity risks and threats originating from within the country or overseas sources,” and criminalizes using the internet to “create or disseminate false information to disrupt the economic or social order.” The law also codifies the authority of security agencies to cut communication networks across an entire geographic region during “major security incidents,” although the government had previously implemented such measures before the law’s passage.

Xinhua issued an authoritative news piece in January stating that the China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA) had released two new documents regarding short-video market regulation: one on regulation of the platforms and one concerning censorship. The new censorship measures imposed stricter criteria for short videos online. The guidelines, which were believed to have been issued at the government’s direction, banned 100 types of inappropriate content, from videos of users dressing up in Communist Party costumes to those “promoting money worship and hedonism.” The CNSA documents openly discussed the “content review” standards it expected of these online video services. Other content to be removed included anything that “attacks China’s political or legal systems,” “content that damages China’s image,” “foot fetishes or sexual moaning,” and “spoofing the national anthem.” The documents called for platforms to expand their internal censorship teams as business grows and changes, and to keep at least one “content review” employee on staff for every 1,000 new videos posted to their platform each day.

CAC regulations on Internet News Information Services require websites, mobile apps, forums, blogs, instant communications services, and search engines to ensure news coverage of a political, economic, diplomatic, or commentary nature conforms to official views of “facts.” These regulations extend longstanding traditional media controls to new media, including online and social media, to ensure these sources also adhere to CCP directives.

In June censors abruptly shut down the app of the financial news aggregator wallstreetcn.com, which had been downloaded more than 100 million times, as well as its website. Earlier in the year, regulators fined wallstreetcn.com for distributing news without a license, and disrupting “online news order.” In the shutdown notice the CAC said that wallstreetcn.com was in breach of cybersecurity measures.

The CAC also required all live-streaming platforms, video platforms, commercial websites, web portals, and apps to register with the CAC. Online content platforms by licensed central media and their affiliates were not required to register.

Regulators required a special permit for transmission of audio and visual materials on blogging platforms such as Weibo and instant messaging platforms such as WeChat. Platform managers were made directly responsible for ensuring user-posted content complies with their permit’s scope. This includes television shows, movies, news programs, and documentaries, which many netizens consumed exclusively through social media channels. The rules prohibit the uploading of any amateur content that would fall under the definition of news programming or “sensitive” topics.

The finalization of the Cybersecurity Law in 2017 also bolstered real-name registration requirements for websites and social media platforms, imposing penalties on network operators that provide services to users who do not provide real-name information. In response, Baidu and Sina Weibo announced accounts without real name registration would have restricted access to certain website functions (e.g., commenting on posts). Cybercafes in Xingtai and Shanghai also began using facial recognition to match users with their photographs printed on national identification documents. In March, following a chemical plant explosion outside of Shanghai, the local government jammed drones sent by media outlets to capture footage of the explosion.

In December 2018 the Zhuhai Court sentenced prominent anticensorship campaigner Zhen Jianghua to a jail term of two years for “inciting subversion of state power” in a closed-door trial. He was released from prison on November 8. Zhen, also known by his online moniker GuestsZhen, reportedly provided technical guidance to domestic Internet users on how to circumvent the Great Firewall to make their posts visible overseas. He was also the executive governor of a website, Rights Movement, which helped collect and disseminate information on rights protections.

Many if not most of the major international news and information websites were blocked, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, as well as the websites of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The government further restricted this space during the year, adding the Washington Post, the Guardian, Huffington Post, Australia’s the Age and News, and Wikipedia to the list of websites blocked by the so-called Great Firewall.

Government censors continued to block content from any source that discussed topics deemed sensitive, such as Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The Hong Kong protests that occurred during the year were subject to heavy, selective censorship: the government initially struck any mention of the protests from media and online discussions, then began to allow and even promote reports criticizing the protesters, while continuing to prohibit access to positive or neutral reporting on the protesters, including reporting that detailed the protesters’ demands for democracy and accountability for police actions.

On August 5, Sun Yat-sen University doctoral student Chen Chun joined the protests in Hong Kong and posted his support for the Hong Kong protesters on his Weibo account. Other netizens reported him to Guangdong police, and his account was shut down.

Censorship on Chinese-owned social media platforms of users in other countries also occurred. In November TikTok, which was owned by Bytedance, blocked the account of a foreign-based user who had posted a video to raise awareness of the continuing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. After a public outcry, TikTok restored her account and admitted her video had been temporarily removed “due to human moderation error.”

The government also punished Chinese citizens for expressing their opinions on foreign social media platforms while outside the country. In November a court in Wuhan sentenced Luo Daiqing to six months’ imprisonment on charges of “provocation” for posting a set of images mocking Chinese leaders on Twitter. Luo posted the images while living in Minnesota, where he was a student; he was arrested in July on a visit home to Wuhan.

The government also significantly increased censorship of business and economic information. In June at least 10 prominent blogs that published financial news and analyses were shut down and had all past content erased. This happened at the same time that government propaganda sources were publishing specific new messages about the country’s economy.

Thousands of social media and other websites remained blocked, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and YouTube.

Despite being blocked in China, Twitter was estimated to have millions of users there. A recent round of government attention on Twitter users in China started in late 2018. A Chinese dissident who lived in Beijing said the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau summoned him twice on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” and presented printed pages of his tweets as evidence. Internet monitors and activists tallied at least 40 cases of government authorities pressuring users in person to delete their tweets or their Twitter accounts. One user spent 15 days in a detention center, while police threatened another user’s family, and a third Twitter user was chained to a chair for eight hours of interrogation.

During the year authorities continued to manipulate the content of individual Twitter accounts. There were reports of authorities forcing individuals to give them access to their Twitter accounts, which authorities then used to delete their tweets. In March the anonymous netizen behind @AirMovingDevice, a Twitter account that specialized in using publicly available data to critically analyze government activity, declared she or he would be deleting all previous tweets and ceasing communication, adding, “it is not my intention to subvert state or Party authority.”

Authorities continued to jail numerous internet writers for their peaceful expression of political views. On July 29, a court in Sichuan sentenced prominent blogger Huang Qi–a Chinese internet pioneer who once won CCP praise for using the web to “combat social ills”–to 12 years in prison for “deliberately disclosing state secrets” and “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.” The charges arose from Huang’s efforts to publicize cases of human rights abuses on the 64Tianwang blog. Huang Qi had been jailed twice previously, for a total of eight years, as a result of his blogging that exposed local government malfeasance and brutality. After Huang’s release from those sentences, he continued his blogging activities.

On January 29, a court in Hubei sentenced Liu Feiyu to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” because he ran a news portal publicizing government corruption and human rights abuses. In addition, there were continuing reports of cyber operations against foreign websites, journalists, and media organizations carrying information that the government restricted internet users in the country from accessing. As in the past, the government selectively blocked access to sites operated by foreign entities, including the websites or social media platforms of health organizations, educational institutions, NGOs, social networking sites, and search engines.

References to same-sex acts, same-sex relations, and the scientifically accurate words for genitalia remained banned following a 2017 government pronouncement listing same-sex acts/relations as an “abnormal sexual relation” and forbidding its depiction. A Weibo account featuring lesbian topics, where more than 143,000 users swapped information, was abruptly shut down in April and then reopened several weeks later. Several scenes in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody that depicted the main character’s gay relationships were cut out of the version shown in Chinese movie theaters.

While such censorship was effective in keeping casual users away from websites hosting sensitive content, many users circumvented online censorship by using various technologies. Information on proxy servers outside the country and software for defeating official censorship were available, although frequently limited by the Great Firewall. Encrypted communication apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp and VPN services were regularly disrupted, especially during “sensitive” times of the year.

The State Secrets Law obliges internet companies to cooperate fully with investigations of suspected leaks of state secrets, stop the transmission of such information once discovered, and report the crime to authorities. This was defined broadly and without clear limits. Furthermore, the companies must comply with authorities’ orders to delete such information from their websites; failure to do so is punishable by relevant departments, such as police and the Ministry of Public Security.

On June 9, police in Jiuxiangling District summoned Guo Yongfeng, a Christian and former participant of a local democratic movement who lived in Shenzhen, to Xili Police Station in response to his online post about his intention to sue Tencent for banning several of his social media accounts. Police warned Guo against disseminating information online about rights protection and organizing related assemblies, and they did not release him until he wrote a letter of guarantee.

China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) – Hong Kong

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The SAR government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, although activists claimed central government authorities monitored their email and internet use.

There were reports of suspected politically motivated cyberattacks against private persons and organizations. In June the creator of the encrypted messaging app Telegram said the app, frequently used by protesters in Hong Kong, was the target of a massive cyberattack, apparently originating from mainland China. In August a similar attack briefly disabled the LIHKG online-chat forum, also frequently used by protesters to organize activities.

China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) – Macau

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content. Law enforcement entities may intercept communications under judicial supervision; there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) – Tibet

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

As in past years, authorities curtailed cell phone and internet service in the TAR and other Tibetan areas, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time. Interruptions in internet service were especially pronounced during periods of unrest and political sensitivity, such as the March anniversaries of the 1959 and 2008 protests, “Serf Emancipation Day,” and around the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. When authorities restored internet service, they closely monitored its usage. There were widespread reports of authorities searching cell phones they suspected of containing suspicious content. Many individuals in the TAR and other Tibetan areas reported receiving official warnings and being briefly detained and interrogated after using their cell phones to exchange what the government deemed to be sensitive information. In July, in advance of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, Radio Free Asia reported authorities warned Tibetans not to use social media chat groups to organize gatherings or celebrations of the spiritual leader’s birthday. The TAR Internet and Information Office continued a research project known as Countermeasures to Internet-based Reactionary Infiltration by the Dalai Lama Clique.

In February, TAR Party Secretary Wu Yingjie urged authorities to “resolutely manage the internet, maintain the correct cybersecurity view, and win the online antiseparatist battle.”

Throughout the year authorities blocked users in China from accessing foreign-based, Tibet-related websites critical of official government policy in Tibetan areas. Technically sophisticated hacking attempts originating from China also targeted Tibetan activists and organizations outside mainland China.

Russia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The government monitored all internet communications (see also section 1.f.). The government continued to employ its longstanding use of the System for Operative Investigative Activities, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to install, at their own expense, a device that routes all customer traffic to an FSB terminal. The system enables police to track private email communications, identify internet users, and monitor their internet activity.

On May 1, President Putin signed a new law on internet sovereignty, the provisions of which mostly took effect on November 1. The law requires internet providers to install equipment to route web traffic through servers in the country. Internet advocates asserted the measure would allow for greater surveillance by intelligence agencies and increase the ability of state authorities to control information and block content. Authorities in the Ural Federal District in central Russia began carrying out tests of such equipment in September (with the goal of covering the entire region by the end of the year), but media noted both that the tests resulted in network failures and slower web traffic, and that prohibited services like the Telegram messaging service remained accessible. The law also envisions the creation of an independent domain name system (DNS) for the country, separate from the global DNS. Telecom operators were expected to have until January 1, 2021, to start using the country’s DNS; those who refuse would be disconnected from data exchange points.

The law requires domestic and foreign businesses to store citizens’ personal data on servers located in the country. Companies that ignore this requirement risk being fined, blocked, or both. On December 2, President Putin signed a law increasing penalties on companies that refuse to localize Russian users’ data from 5,000 rubles ($78) to 6 million rubles ($94,200), with fines of up to 18 million rubles ($283,000) for repeat offenses. In 2016 Roskomnadzor blocked access to the foreign-based professional networking website LinkedIn for failure to comply with the law; the service remained unavailable in the country without a virtual private network (VPN) service. In April a Moscow court fined Facebook and Twitter 3,000 rubles ($47) each in separate proceedings for failing to inform authorities where they stored the personal data of users.

Telecommunications companies are required to store user data and make it available to law enforcement bodies. Companies are required to store users’ voice records for six months, and electronic correspondence (audio, images, and video) for three months.

Observers believed that the country’s security services were able to intercept and decode encrypted messages on at least some messaging platforms. The law requires telecommunications providers to provide authorities with “backdoors” around encryption technologies. On December 2, President Putin signed a law increasing fines on companies that refuse to provide the FSB with decryption keys that would allow them to read users’ correspondence. Previously the fine was up to 1 million rubles ($15,700), but the new law raised it to 6 million rubles ($94,200). The government blocked access to content and otherwise censored the internet. Roskomnadzor maintained a federal blacklist of internet sites and required ISPs to block access to web pages that the agency deemed offensive or illegal, including information that was already prohibited, such as items on the Federal List of Extremist Materials. The law gives the prosecutor general and Roskomnadzor authority to demand that ISPs block websites that promote extremist information, and “mass public events that are conducted in violation of appropriate procedures.” According to the internet freedom NGO Roskomsvoboda, as of September a total of four million websites were unjustly blocked in the country. On July 18, Roskomnadzor fined Google 700,000 rubles ($11,000) for not removing links to sites banned by the government from its search results.

The law requires owners of internet search engines (“news aggregators”) with more than one million daily users to be accountable for the truthfulness of “publicly important” information before its dissemination. Authorities may demand that content deemed in violation be removed and impose heavy fines for refusal.

A law on the “right to be forgotten” allows individuals in the country to request that search engine companies block search results that contain information about them. According to Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom on the Net report, the law was “routinely applied to require search engines to delete links to websites that contain personal information about an individual if it is no longer considered relevant.” On April 19, the Constitutional Court rejected a legal challenge to the law brought by the human rights NGO SOVA Center for Information and Analysis.

There was a growing trend of social media users being prosecuted for the political, religious, or other ideological content of posts, shares, and “likes,” which resulted in fines or prison sentences (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press).

The government prohibited online anonymity. The law requires commercial VPN services and internet anonymizers to block access to websites and internet content prohibited in the country. The law also authorizes law enforcement agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and FSB, to identify VPN services that do not comply with the ban by Roskomnadzor. By law Roskomnadzor may also block sites that provide instructions on how to circumvent government blocking. When the law came into force in 2017, Roskomnadzor announced that the majority of commercial VPNs and anonymizers used in the country had registered and intended to comply with the law, although most foreign-based VPNs had not. In June Roskomnadzor announced that it would block nine VPN services that refused its March demand to register with authorities. At least some of these services remained effective within the country as of September.

The law prohibits companies registered as “organizers of information dissemination,” including online messaging applications, from allowing anonymous users. Messaging applications and platforms that fail to comply with the requirements to restrict anonymous accounts may be blocked. In June authorities demanded that dating app Tinder provide messages and photos exchanged by users of the service.

There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. For example, individuals who were detained during the August 3 protests in Moscow and whose cell phones police confiscated told Novaya Gazeta about repeated attempts to hack their email accounts in the days following their release. One protester, whose cell phone was tracking its geolocation, reported that his cell phone had apparently been transported to a location in the Moscow suburbs while he was in detention.

There were reports of the disruption of communications during demonstrations. For example, authorities in Ingushetia restricted access to mobile internet on numerous occasions during mass protests in March against a land swap with the Republic of Chechnya. During the July 27 and August 3 protests over the Moscow City Duma elections, authorities switched off mobile internet coverage in the protest area.

Saudi Arabia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

Internet Freedom

The Ministry of Media or its agencies must authorize all websites registered and hosted in the country. The General Commission for Audiovisual Media has responsibility for regulating all audio and video content in the country, including satellite channels, film, music, internet, and mobile applications, independent from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Internet access was widely available.

The press and publications law implicitly covers electronic media, since it extends to any means of expression of a viewpoint meant for circulation, ranging from words to cartoons, photographs, and sounds. In 2011 the government issued implementing regulations for electronic publishing that set rules for internet-based and other electronic media, including chat rooms, personal blogs, and text messages. In May 2018 then information minister Awwad bin Saleh al-Awwad approved the executive regulations for types and forms of electronic publishing activities. The list consists of 17 items defining the mechanisms of dealing with electronic publishing activities, classifications, and ways of obtaining the appropriate regulatory licenses to carry out the required activities. Laws, including the cybercrimes law, criminalize a number of internet-related activities, including defamation, hacking, unauthorized access to government websites, and stealing information related to national security as well as the creation or dissemination of a website for a terrorist organization. Security authorities actively monitored internet activity, both to enforce laws, regulations, and societal norms and to monitor recruitment efforts by extremist organizations such as ISIS.

The government reportedly collected information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs online. According to Freedom House, authorities regularly monitored nonviolent political, social, and religious activists and journalists in the name of national security and maintaining social order. The NGO Citizen Lab reported that NSO Group, an Israeli cybersecurity firm, provided spyware to the government to monitor activists’ communications on web-based applications.

Access to the internet is legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers. The government required internet service providers to monitor customers and required internet cafes to install hidden cameras and provide identity records of customers. Although authorities blocked websites offering proxies, persistent internet users accessed the unfiltered internet via other means.

On a number of occasions, government officials and senior clerics publicly warned against inaccurate reports on the internet and reminded the public that criticism of the government and its officials should be done through available private channels. The government charged those using the internet to express dissent against officials or religious authorities with terrorism, blasphemy, and apostasy.

The press and publications law criminalizes the publication or downloading of offensive sites, and authorities routinely blocked sites containing material perceived as harmful, illegal, offensive, or anti-Islamic. The governmental Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) filtered and blocked access to websites it deemed offensive, including adult content, as well as pages calling for domestic political, social, or economic reforms or supporting human rights, including websites of expatriate Saudi dissidents.

The CITC coordinated decisions with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency on blocking phishing sites seeking to obtain confidential personal or financial information. Authorities submitted all other requests to block sites to an interagency committee, chaired by the Ministry of Interior, for decision. Under the Telecommunication Act, failure by service providers to block banned sites can result in a fine of five million riyals ($1.33 million).

In 2016 the CITC announced it was no longer blocking any free voice, video, or messaging services after criticisms on social media that these services had been blocked. In 2017 the CITC announced the unblocking of calling features for private messenger apps that met regulatory requirements in the country, such as Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Snapchat, Skype, Line, Telegram, and Tango. On March 12, WhatsApp users reported the unblocking of its calling feature, but the service was reblocked hours later. Other video-calling apps, including Viber, reported services were still blocked.

The government has blocked Qatari websites such as alJazeera since 2017, due to a dispute between Qatar and a group of countries that included Saudi Arabia.

In 2017 a government official stated that writing for blocked websites, providing them with materials to publish, or promoting alternative addresses to access them is a crime under the cybercrimes law.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future