Future Tense

New Report Says Internet Freedom Has Declined Worldwide

A woman holds a 'Save the Net' protest sign during a demonstration against the proposed repeal of net neutrality outside the Federal Communications Commission headquarters in Washington, DC in December 2017.
A woman holds a ‘Save the Net’ protest sign during a demonstration against the proposed repeal of net neutrality outside the Federal Communications Commission headquarters in Washington, DC in December 2017. ALEX EDELMAN/Getty Images

The past year has been bad for internet freedom around the world—including in the United States.

On Thursday, the human rights organization Freedom House released its annual report “Freedom on the Net,” which measures the level of online freedom for 65 countries and ranks them. It also provides in-depth analysis to support the numbers. The verdict for this year: “The internet is growing less free around the world, and democracy itself is withering under its influence,” the introduction to the report says.

The Freedom on the Net report, which was first released in 2011, looks at 21 criteria divided into three categories: obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights. Each country gets a numerical score out of 100, with the lower score indicating more freedom. Scores from zero to 30 indicates that a country is relatively free, while scores from 61 to 100 means the country is not.

The conclusion is grim: Global internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year. Even the United States’ score dropped, largely due to repeal of net neutrality and fake news. Granted, the U.S. only lost one point over the year, going to 21 from 22 points, and still ranks high in internet freedom in comparison to other countries. It comes in sixth place, trailing behind Estonia, Iceland, Canada, Germany and Australia. However, the decline points to serious problems that should not be taken lightly.

In an analysis of internet freedom in America, Freedom House points to the repeal of net neutrality as one of the reasons for its declining score. In December 2017, the Federal Communications Commission repealed net neutrality, a set of rules that say internet service providers like Comcast or Verizon must treat all data equally.

Perhaps the most overlooked violation of internet freedom included in the in-depth analysis may be the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act, including Section 702, in January. According to Freedom House’s analysis, this provision is aimed at foreigners, but also gives the U.S. government permission to tap into emails, text, and chat histories of Americans via companies like Google and AT&T. For example, a U.S. citizen who is associated or communicating with a noncitizen may as well become a target.

The spread of fake news and “hyper-partisan content” also harmed internet freedom in America, Freedom House reported—and maybe beyond. In an article breaking down the Freedom House report, Techcrunch says:

The U.S. has its part to blame for the decline in at least 17 countries where “fake news” has been co-opted by oppressive regimes to justify crackdowns on dissent and free speech. The rise of “fake news,” a term largely attributed to Donald Trump — then a candidate for president — which spread like wildfire — and across borders — was a way to reject reported information or factual current events that were derogatory to a person’s views. In other words, it was a verbal hand grenade, lobbed whenever a person heard something they didn’t like.

Now, other regimes are cracking down on internet freedoms under the guise of fighting fake news. Philippines and Kazakhstan were both named by Freedom House as using “fake news” to restrict the internet by removing content and stifling the spread of views in the name of fighting misinformation.

To encourage more freedom on the internet, Freedom House called on the U.S. to reintroduce the Global Online Freedom Act. GOFA was introduced by Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey in every Congress from February 2006 to 2014, but never passed, the report said. The act would have imposed penalties on nations that restrict internet freedom by making sure no items that can be used to carry out censorship, surveillance or internet freedom restrictions are exported abroad. GOFA would also direct the secretary of state to “annually designate internet-restricting countries.”

However, it seems unlikely something like GOFA would pass. One concern critics brought up was that designating internet-restricting countries “will be politicized unless non-governmental actors also participate,” Indiana University law professor David Fidler wrote in 2012 in the journal American Society of International Law. Moreover, Fidler said experts believe restricting trade might “harm people in foreign countries who need access to more and better information technologies.”

But we need to do something. “If democracy is to survive the digital age, technology companies, governments, and civil society must work together to find real solutions to the problems of social media manipulation and abusive data collection,” the Freedom House report concluded. “The health of the world’s democracies depends on it.”