Future Tense

Renowned Rights Watchdog to Downgrade United States in Freedom Rankings

File photo of a Russian woman protesting for freedoms in St. Petersburg.

Photo by OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

If you thought the astounding (and ongoing) revelations about the NSA’s PRISM regime were going to hurt America’s reputation, it appears you were right. Freedom House just made it official.

In an exclusive statement to Future Tense, the internationally renowned rights watchdog said it’s going to downgrade the U.S. in its annual Internet freedom rankings.

“The revelation of this program will weaken the United States’ score on the survey,” the organization told me in an email.

The project director for Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net initiative, Sanja Tatic Kelly, elaborated further in another email (emphasis added):

“[S]ome of the recent revelations were already known to the internet freedom community, albeit perhaps not the full scope of them. Consequently, the United States already has a pretty poor rating on our methodology when it comes to surveillance issues. However, with this week’s revelations, as well as the recently uncovered surveillance of AP journalists, that rating is going to drop even further.

Kelly went on to emphasize that, compared with other countries around the world, the U.S. “does still have pretty well functioning political institutions and free press.” However, she added that PRISM poses “unique” challenges to freedom. In her words:

“What makes the situation in the U.S. unique, however, is that our government is more technologically sophisticated than most others and many major internet companies are based in the United States, allowing the government to conduct surveillance of much greater magnitude.”

The official Freedom House statement made a point of saying America’s online freedom ranking probably won’t plummet, noting, “the effect will likely be fairly modest, as the current score takes into consideration what was already known about the government’s extensive electronic surveillance activities.”

As of September, Freedom House listed the United States as the second-most “free” country in terms of Internet freedoms (within a 47-country sample), outranked only by Estonia. The rankings were based on three general criteria: “Obstacles to Access” (e.g. keeping citizens from being able to access computers or specific applications), “Limits on Content” (e.g. blocking, censoring, or altering online content), and “Violations of User Rights” (e.g. surveillance or jailing of online dissidents). The PRISM revelations have nothing to do with the first two criteria, but definitely deal a huge blow on the third.

The Obama administration is already being compared to the Chinese Communist Party—arguably the world’s most infamous limiter of online freedoms. No doubt, PRISM makes the U.S. government (as well as the government of the U.K., which seems to have been in on the action) look like an opponent of the open Web, snooping through files and communications. But as massive as this digital espionage effort is, can we really call the U.S. an “Enemy of the Internet,” to use the terminology of Reporters Without Borders?

Not exactly—but PRISM does to an extent resemble the surveillance programs of Internet enemies like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. What’s new here is that we can even mention America in the same sentence as those countries now, when it comes to online freedom—something that was almost unthinkable just a few days ago.

For some perspective, let’s take a look at how the U.S. government now stacks up against some of the world’s best-known online oppressors (Note: in an attempt to avoid too many apples-and-oranges comparisons, I’ve tried to focus mostly on countries with high Internet penetration and a substantial middle class):

China: One big similarity here: the relationship between the central government and private companies. Chinese netizens live in the shadow of restrictions that are collectively referred to as the “Great Firewall of China.” As of 2010, a law has been in place that requires all telecom operators and Internet service providers to take orders from the government during investigations about the leaking of state secrets. PRISM appears to have functioned largely via some level of cooperation from major online firms like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Apple (though many of them have issued official denials of involvement). If you’re online in China, unless you use a VPN or some other kind of workaround, there is an extremely high chance that you’re being tracked. If PRISM is as widespread as is alleged, that could very easily be true here, too.

Of course, China’s online repression is far more extreme than America’s on almost every other count (if we jailed bloggers here like the CCP does there, Glenn Greenwald would be serving hard time, not getting on the front page of the Guardian). And the U.S. doesn’t appear to have been looking for anything beyond national-security information, as opposed to touchy political speech. But the combination of a huge Internet user base and cooperation between corporations and the government to spy on that user base—well, that seems a little too familiar now.

Russia: It’s actually possible that Russian netizens are under less surveillance than we are here in the United States. Despite its best efforts, the Russian government doesn’t appear to have any coherent infrastructure for massive surveillance. ISPs are required to install software that allows the police to monitor Internet traffic, but there have been no reported uses of the software. Government technology to find and flag “extremist” sites has been faulty and remains unimplemented. Legislation passed in 2007 gave the government permission to intercept online data without a warrant, but actual use of that law has largely been absent in major population centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg.

That doesn’t mean Russia doesn’t attack online freedoms, of course. Bloggers are regularly intimidated, the state demands that ISPs provide user data for dissidents, and so on. But what’s interesting to see here is that the U.S. appears to have a surveillance system that is so streamlined and efficient as to be the stuff of dreams for the Putin regime.

Iran: Luckily, PRISM doesn’t get anywhere near the aggressive attacks on user rights that Iranian netizens face. That said, Iran has a relatively high Internet usership for the Middle East—users just can’t surf freely. The mullahs make no secret of their contempt for free speech, enforcing laws against any material opposing state interests or Islam. Surveillance is widespread, too: The regime reportedly keeps connection speeds deliberately low, so as to make it easier to monitor and filter content. Indeed, Iran is in the process of completing a so-called “clean Internet”—a self-contained, state-controlled intranet that will be used as an alternative to the Internet. We’re still a far way off from anything like that.

Bahrain: The U.S. doesn’t go nearly as far as this tumultuous monarchy, but it has a similar philosophy of keeping its fingers in as many online pies as possible. Bahrain’s Internet usership is possibly the highest of any Arab state, but virtually no user is safe from the government’s watchful eye. As Reporters Without Borders puts it, “The royal family is represented in all areas of Internet management and has sophisticated tools at its disposal for spying on its subjects.” Not only that, but the government makes no secret of its iron fist: It regularly hacks dissidents’ Twitter and Facebook accounts, demands online passwords during interrogations, and uses malware to trawl every corner of the Bahraini Web. America is nowhere near that, thank goodness.

South Korea: User liberties are severely curtailed in this otherwise pretty liberal democracy, but not through a PRISM-like surveillance regime. Instead, the government in Seoul keeps tabs on netizens through what’s known as Resident Registration Numbers. They’re serial numbers assigned to every citizen born in Korea, and users are required to use them while using almost all online services. They’re not spied upon, per se, but if someone does something Seoul doesn’t like, he or she can face arrests, raids, or other unpleasantness. (See the case of Park Jung-geun, indicted for retweeting the official North Korean Twitter account.) We don’t have anything resembling RNNs in the U.S.

North Korea: Even the most paranoid civil libertarian can take some comfort in knowing we’re light years away from the Hermit Kingdom. We may be under watch, but at least we have the Internet, instead of a weird national intranet filled with sanitized information and happy-birthday messages.

So the U.S. is still one of the freer places to be an Internet user. But we’re apparently much closer to these authoritarian states than many of us had imagined—and the scary thing is, we’re really good at what we do. Our days as a respected beacon of near-total online liberty are probably at an end.