The democratic island of Taiwan has ranked fifth globally for online freedom, according to the latest annual report from the Washington-based watchdog Freedom House.
Taiwan was included in the index as a country for the first time, with one of the "freest online environments" in the region, with affordable access, diverse content, and a lack of website blocks or internet shutdowns, the report said.
While Taiwan's independent judiciary protects free speech, civil society, the technology sector, and the government have taken "innovative action" to counteract a huge disinformation campaign originating from China, it said, but cited concerns over foreign migrant workers’ vulnerability to exploitation.
Internet access is widely affordable, with nearly 10,000 hotspots across the country providing free Wi-Fi, but there are also illiberal tendencies including the criminalization of online activity and concerns over growing user surveillance.
At least four people were fined after being found guilty of violating the Social Order Maintenance Act for social media posts that included inaccurate information, while legislation proposed in September 2020 boosts the state's power to monitor private communications stored on an electronic device, the report said.
In 2018, the Taiwan Association of Human Rights (TAHR) reported in 2018 that the Taipei city government filtered certain content on its free Wi-Fi services provided to public spaces, including content related to drug abuse, adult content, gambling, phishing, sex education, and weapons.
However, "expression protected by international human rights standards is generally not forcibly removed," the Freedom House report said.
But it did identify a chilling effect from high-profile prosecutions of some Taiwanese people in China, meaning that anyone with business or family in China might censor themselves to avoid retaliation by the CCP authorities on their next trip.
It cited the case of Taiwan activist Lee Ming-Che, who is serving a five-year jail term for subversion over social media content he posted while in Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Taiwan has laws imposing penalties for disseminating false or misleading information, with up to three days' detention under the Social Order Maintenance Act (SOMA) for "spreading rumors in a way that is sufficient to undermine public order and peace."
In mid-2020, a user was charged under SOMA for a YouTube video accusing President Tsai Ing-wen of electoral fraud during the 2020 presidential election, but the case was dismissed by a judge.
Global democratic progress
Taiwan rights activist Yang Hsien-hung said Taiwan is at the forefront of global democratic progress.
"The CCP media and their Little Pink fanbase often criticize Taiwan's alliance with the U.S. as some kind of anti-China force, but actually Taiwan represents an international trend and an embodiment of universal values [of human rights, democracy and the rule of law]," Yang told RFA.
"The fact that Taiwan is in fifth place shows that democracy, freedom, and human rights are all progressing [here]," Yang said.
"Nevertheless, we would always feel that our freedoms aren't enough," Yang said. "We still need to work harder."
Across the Taiwan Strait in China, the country's internet policy remained "profoundly oppressive" during the past year, Freedom House found, with the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the middle of a sweeping regulatory crackdown on technology companies, with ever tighter controls over online speech, blocking encrypted communication platform Signal and the audio app Clubhouse, placing new restrictions on self-published content and prosecuting activists found using virtual private networks (VPNs) to evade government censorship.
A political goal
Cheng'en Song, who heads Taiwan Democracy Watch, said that by contrast with Taiwan, China is seeking to break up private sector wealth and power, as well as eroding what remains of individual privacy.
"This is a political goal," Song told RFA. "Freedom House's report has relentlessly exposed the fact that something that appears on the surface to be regulatory change similar to those in the West actually has a political purpose behind it."
"China wants to demonstrate that it is a rising, great power and to flex its institutional muscle," he said. "Their approach to internet freedom is based on the idea that the Chinese don't value privacy, and this makes their values different to [the West's]."
China's 989 million internet users are largely restricted to content available behind the Great Firewall of government censorship, while any operators of critical infrastructure are required to get official approval for the purchase of new equipment.
"The Central Propaganda Department plays a leading role with regard to enforcing CCP’s political and ideological priorities through online regulation," it said.
"The content targeted for blocking, including major social media platforms, usually contains criticism of individuals, policies, or events that are considered integral to the one-party system," the Freedom House report said.
"The breadth of the affected content is constantly growing, leaving Chinese users with access only to a highly censored, monitored, and manipulated version of the internet," it said, citing an estimated U.S.$6.6 billion spent by the CCP on enforcing nationwide censorship since 2018.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Hwang Chun-mei and Fong Tak Ho.