An international media rights group released a report this week on the treatment of Internet users around the world. The report heavily criticizes China for increasingly censoring Internet websites and jailing so-called cyber-dissidents.
The report by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders warns that government censorship of the Internet around the world is growing both more sophisticated and commonplace. Much of that increase in censorship, the group warns, has happening in democratic countries since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
But Reporters Without Border reserved special criticism for China.
China has detained 61 Internet users this month, prompting the group to label China the largest prison for cyber-dissidents in the world.
But Julien Pain, the author of the report released this week, says that figure is down from last year.
"This year, the Chinese government did not jail many cyber-dissidents," he noted. "There were some, of course, but not as many as in 2002 when there was a virtual wave of imprisonments."
Instead, Mr. Pain says, the Chinese have increased surveillance of their Internet and are shutting down chat rooms. He says the crackdown has eliminated a form of free speech that was blossoming until March of this year.
"It had permitted a form of free expression that was anonymous," he said. "What is happening now is that the government realized the power of the Internet, and has reversed the small gains of the last few years."
China responded to the Reporters Without Borders report. Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue called it irresponsible and pointed to the large growth of the Internet in China in defense.
"Chinese laws give freedom of speech to Chinese citizens," he countered. "The Internet industry in China has developed rapidly. According to a survey, there are 80 million Internet users in China. If China has developed it's Internet industry and has some a large number of internet users, then this really shows there is freedom in this area. Otherwise, we would not have such rapid development."
Elsewhere in Asia, Reporters Without Borders condemned Vietnam for, in its words, "following the example" of China. Vietnam is detaining six cyber-dissidents.
Reporters Without Borders acknowledges that the rise in terrorism does justify increased monitoring of the Internet. It notes that the terrorists who flew jumbo jets into New York's World Trade Center towers in 2001 used the Internet extensively to communicate with one another, and to purchase airline tickets online.
But the group says the need for surveillance must be more carefully weighed against the rights of free speech and civil liberties and not used to silence political dissent.