Freedom House Report on Internet Freedom: How Can you Rank What you Don’t Understand?

by Neil Turkewitz

Freedom House, in the event that you are unfamiliar with it, is a storied organization established in the early 1940’s “to encourage popular support for American involvement in World War II at a time when isolationist sentiments were running high in the United States.” Its mission has evolved over time, but has always been been motivated by the noble idea that American ideals of liberty, freedom and democracy were a foundation for global peace and prosperity. In recent years it has turned its attention to issues related to Internet freedom, and it released its most recent report just last week, Freedom on the Net: The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism.

This report sets out to discuss and rank the scope of internet freedom enjoyed in 65 countries. But with “Internet Freedom” being such a complicated and subjective thing to define, to say nothing of measure, I decided to look more carefully at the Report rather than to merely rely on media reports, or the general and laudable goals of the organization itself. I’m glad I did, and I encourage anyone with a serious interest in promoting meaningful expression on the internet to examine it for themselves rather than relying on any report thereof. I frankly found the report to be shocking in its bias and its oversimplification of extremely complex issues. I suppose I shouldn’t have been that surprised given the relationship between Eric Schmidt, Google and other Silicon Valley interests and Freedom House, but the internal inconsistencies of the report itself, and the warm embrace of Silicon Valley talking points wrapped up in the cyberlibertarian ethos that have dominated the past 20 years of internet governance, was nonetheless fairly breathtaking. Freedom House largely defines “Internet Freedom” as the absence of government restraints on internet-based conduct, thereby channeling the cyber-Utopianism of John Perry Barlow. But while the absence of government oversight is what provides freedom to Google and other Silicon Valley companies, the public’s freedom may be found elsewhere.

While hardly the worst element of the report, there is one thing that should immediately demonstrate the oversimplification of this report. See the following from coverage of the report in Slate: “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.”

Regardless of where one falls on the net neutrality spectrum, does anyone think that the internet experience in the US has materially deteriorated as a result of the repeal of Title II Net Neutrality? Are we less free now than we were during the two years we operated under Title II? Exactly what change has taken place that has affected our freedom? As noted, I think there are much more fundamental problems with the report than this, but it is a perfect reflection of how this report is not what it seems. It is first and foremost a lobbying document based on a very narrow framing of freedom — a definition that happens to closely track the advocacy of Google and the Internet Society.

Freedom House makes no attempt to hide its financial relationship, and the following appears prior to the report itself:

“This report was made possible by the generous support of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, New York Community Trust, Google, Internet Society, and Oath.” But disclosure itself doesn’t cure the defects of the report.

While I don’t frequently find myself in agreement with the National Legal & Policy Center, I do completely agree with an observation that they made in 2015 about Freedom House’s Report on Internet Freedom:

“As one of the premier independent watchdog organizations dedicated to the protection of freedom and democracy around the globe, Freedom House has a special responsibility to shine the light on examples of governments undermining the causes of freedom, human rights, and civil liberties.

At the same time, Freedom House has a special and indeed unique challenge to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest in championing the advancement of freedom globally. In this regard, we think you would agree that Freedom House has a duty to carefully safeguard the integrity of its scholarship and brand from those who may wish to hijack them for their own self-serving purposes. That’s why the National Legal and Policy Center was alarmed to discover what appears to be an unusually high degree of influence laundering by Google, one of your major corporate sponsors, in the drafting of your annual Internet Freedom Index.”

This unholy relationship between Eric Schmidt, Google and Freedom House was also explored by Julian Assange, as covered by Newsweek a couple of years ago in a piece entitled: Google is Not What It Seems. Put aside whatever one may think of Assange, the following observation from this one time darling of the internet freedom community is on point, and has been echoed more recently by April Glaser in exploring certain questions about EFF, entitled “The Watchdogs That Didn’t Bark.”

“[Jared] Cohen’s world seems to be one event like this after another: endless soirees for the cross-fertilization of influence between elites and their vassals, under the pious rubric of “civil society.” The received wisdom in advanced capitalist societies is that there still exists an organic “civil society sector” in which institutions form autonomously and come together to manifest the interests and will of citizens. The fable has it that the boundaries of this sector are respected by actors from government and the “private sector,” leaving a safe space for NGOs and nonprofits to advocate for things like human rights, free speech and accountable government.

This sounds like a great idea. But if it was ever true, it has not been for decades. Since at least the 1970s, authentic actors like unions and churches have folded under a sustained assault by free-market statism, transforming “civil society” into a buyer’s market for political factions and corporate interests looking to exert influence at arm’s length. The last forty years have seen a huge proliferation of think tanks and political NGOs whose purpose, beneath all the verbiage, is to execute political agendas by proxy.

It is not just obvious neocon front groups like Foreign Policy Initiative. It also includes fatuous Western NGOs like Freedom House, where naïve but well-meaning career nonprofit workers are twisted in knots by political funding streams, denouncing non-Western human rights violations while keeping local abuses firmly in their blind spots.

The civil society conference circuit — which flies developing-world activists across the globe hundreds of times a year to bless the unholy union between “government and private stakeholders” at geopoliticized events like the “Stockholm Internet Forum” — simply could not exist if it were not blasted with millions of dollars in political funding annually.”

But let’s put aside funding and bias — what I find most disappointing and frustrating is that Freedom House, after having correctly identified the toxicity of the present internet environment, then designates efforts to address such toxicity as a threat to internet freedom. They repeatedly warn about “digital authoritarianism,” but then seem to define it as the very application of national laws to the internet which isn’t authoritarianism, but governance and the rule of law.

As a perfect example, the report begins with a straightforward observation: “Disinformation and propaganda disseminated on-line have poisoned the public sphere. The unbridled collection of personal data has broken down traditional notions of privacy… With or without malign intent, the internet and social media in particular can push citizens into polarized echo chambers and pull at the social fabric of a country, fueling hostility between different communities.”

Yet, Freedom House significantly decreased Sri Lanka’s “internet freedom score” by virtue of the following: “In Sri Lanka, authorities shut down social media platforms for two days during communal riots that broke out in March and led to at least two deaths. Rumors and disinformation had spread on digital platforms, sparking vigilante violence that predominantly targeted the Muslim minority.” Was a temporary shutdown not a reasonable response by Sri Lanka to a dangerous environment that threatened the wellbeing of a vulnerable class of citizens? Did it really make Sri Lanka less free?

Instead, of tackling the really complicated questions of how to distinguish censorship from reasonable actions that place limits on speech given cultural and political variances in affected communities, Freedom House places tremendous faith in digital literacy. Great, everyone supports that, but no one truly believes that digital literacy on its own will create a sufficient check on internet-enabled harms. So what else? I fully recognize the complexity of the situation, and that tools can be used for good and bad. That’s true of the internet itself. But just as we wouldn’t suggest that the potential for bad acts via the internet should result in banning the internet, nor should we accept the notion that tools or modalities for addressing harm — because they have the potential to be abused, must not be employed.

Freedom House fundamentally doesn’t like the application of national laws to the Internet, and likes to refer to national sovereignty as “the Chinese model.” They write: “throughout the year, authoritarians used claims of “fake news” and data scandals as a pretext to move closer to the China model.” Clearly some countries may seek to adopt protectionist measures, or to censor political speech, under the pretense of addressing various harms. But aren’t there legitimate reasons for governments to intervene to protect their citizens and to ensure the application of law to conduct that has an effect within their jurisdictions? References to the “Chinese model” are just shorthand to avoid discussion of the complex balancing of law and the preservation of cultural and social values in world where those values are not universal, regardless of the capacity of technologies to transcend borders.

Freedom House appears to want to leave this completely to companies to work out with “civil society” — fairly convenient for companies given the reliance of much of “civil society” on them for funding. Freedom House has a whole set of recommendations to address internet harms — a list remarkable for the absence of anything that would strengthen the authority to defend the rule of law, or hold platforms to a higher level of accountability for their conduct.

Essentially, Freedom House’s vision is to double down on what got us here, and their proposals are far too anodyne and wrapped up in doublespeak. They write: “Global internet freedom can and should be the antidote to digital authoritarianism. The health of the world’s democracies depends on it.” Sounds great, and less filling too. While the internet may provide a channel for global communications, it doesn’t eliminate national differences in laws and expectations, nor does it create a single global community with shared norms. That’s the stuff of Silicon Valley legend. Freedom House fails to appreciate that the freedom for Muslims in Sri Lanka may be dependent upon action by the government to quell unrest that imperils their very lives. Freedom House writes: “In many ways, the internet erases borders.” In more important ways, it doesn’t.

End Note: I didn’t want to make this the story so have confined discussion to an end note, but Freedom House’s advocacy on intermediary liability also exposes the Report as a lobbying tool rather than as an objective report on freedom. Freedom House writes: “Protections against intermediary liability are also eroding on the other side of the Atlantic. There is ongoing pressure in the United States to rescind “safe harbor” protections in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Without the provision, companies that make mistakes when attempting to remove banned content could be held liable for allowing illegal activities on their platforms, encouraging them to err on the side of censorship rather than protecting legitimate expression.” An astonishingly overbroad and incorrect statement of fact and law, and a reflection of the cyberlibertarian ideals expressed by Barlow et al that have served us so poorly. If greater accountability in the internet ecosystem is a sign of diminishing freedom, sign me up for less freedom. Freedom to do harm is not freedom to be celebrated.