KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — On the face of it, the 2021 Freedom on the Net Report made for great reading for the Taiwan government.
Its commitments to basic rights and freedoms were emphasized, as Freedom House, the independent organization which monitors online rights around the world ranked Taiwan fifth in the entire world for online freedom. It also notably talks about Taiwan as a country in the report, which is also welcome.
Freedom House heaped praise on the Taiwan authorities for the way they have responded to hostile and aggressive online attacks from China with “innovative regulations and democratic oversight of digital technology.”
Meanwhile, it goes without saying that the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) oppressive Great Firewall censorship regime and its pervasive online surveillance machinery saw it placed bottom of the pile for the seventh successive year. Other authoritarian countries like Myanmar, Belarus, and Uganda also came in for criticism, while even the U.S. slipped in the rankings, with the proliferation of fake news.
While the report was overwhelmingly positive, there were some areas that Freedom House identified where Taiwan could improve its performance.
The report noted that Taiwan's internet users have to contend with disinformation campaigns and debilitating cyberattacks, largely originating from China, on a regular basis. This assertion is absolutely right, but it also creates something of a dichotomy for the authorities.
If it wants to reign in the disinformation and fake news that is everywhere online in China, how can it do that without eroding people’s rights to freedom of speech online? The complexity of this challenge is illustrated by the other criticism of Taiwan, which is that some individuals have faced criminal prosecutions and fines for their online speech.
It is a massive challenge. How does Taiwan protect the online freedoms of its citizens, without those freedoms becoming an Achilles heel that the CCP regime can exploit to spread its poison and propaganda?
The instinctive response to this question would naturally be to look at what other democratic countries around the world are doing. But, as the Freedom on the Net report shows, what we see happening in places like the U.S. and the U.K. does not get the balance right.
One of the main reasons why Taiwan ranks above all the major Western democracies bar Canada is because they have chosen to attempt to counter perceived security threats by undermining online rights and freedoms. Taiwan, so far, has chosen not to go down this road, but as the threats from the CCP continue to escalate, there may well come a time when its hand is forced.
If Taiwan is serious about maintaining its place in the Freedom on the Net rankings and, more importantly, protecting the online rights of its citizens, it is vital that it strikes the right balance.
In a lot of Western countries, the choice has been made to log people’s online activity, censor a broad range of content, or permit surveillance by a wide range of public bodies with few or no safeguards in place.
Taiwan must not go down this road.
The advantage that Taiwan has over countries like the U.S. and the U.K. is that it knows the vast majority of its fake news, disinformation, and cyber-attacks come from one place, namely China.
Increased government support and information programs for businesses and individuals to protect themselves from cyber-attacks is an obvious step to take. This could take the form of grants or loans to audit and improve security or official recommendations to use reliable anti-virus programs, firewalls, and VPNs.
The Taiwan government has already done a lot to try and address the plethora of fake news and disinformation, but there is still more to be done. There is scope to work much closer with social media platforms like LINE and Facebook to tackle the issue at source and the government shouldn’t be afraid to threaten repercussions if these platforms don’t take the matter seriously.
A key indicator of a lot of fake news circulating in Taiwan is the language, simplified Chinese. Getting the message across that information in simplified Chinese is not reliable and should be disregarded or even deleted would help a great deal.
Doubtless, there is much more that can and should be done too. Perhaps Taiwan News readers have some innovative suggestions the Taiwan authorities could take on board?
The key is finding ways to protect the hard-won freedoms that define modern Taiwan and make us stand apart from the authoritarianism of the CCP. Equally important is ensuring that a dogged adherence to these freedoms at the expense of all else, doesn’t end up being a factor in losing them altogether.