“Freedom on the Net” 2018 West Coast Launch: Recap and Reflection

An overview of the November 5 event organized by Stanford’s Global Digital Policy Incubator (GDPi) and Freedom House

By Roya Pakzad and Jan Rydzak @Stanford_GDPi

The Freedom on the Net 2018 West Coast launch event at Stanford University

Data breaches, government surveillance, and the consequences of rampant hate speech on social media are everyday fixtures of the modern news cycle. But these isolated accounts are rarely stitched together into global assessments of Internet freedom. On November 5, Stanford’s GDPi and Freedom House held a roundtable to launch the 2018 edition of Freedom House’s annual “Freedom on the Net” report, subtitled “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism.” GDPi hosted seven roundtable participants from academia, civil society, and the private sector to speak to the findings in this year’s report. This post will provide short summaries of each participant’s contribution to the discussion. Video highlights from the event are available here.

GDPi’s Executive Director, Eileen Donahoe, opened the panel by noting that the Freedom on the Net Report provides an extremely important frame of reference for understanding the global trajectory on digital rights over time, and also serves as a shared foundation for the work of the global community working to protect freedom online.

Donahoe highlighted the three core themes of this year’s report:

1) The poisonous effect of digital disinformation on democracy and the wide range of different manifestations of this threat around the world;

2) The negative consequences of unbridled collection of data by both states and the private sector;

3) The rise of digital authoritarianism globally.


Michael Abramowitz, President, Freedom House

Michael Abramowitz, President of Freedom House, kicked off the ensuing discussion by emphasizing the global nature of the decline in Internet freedom. The problem is not restricted to any one country or region, he noted, but has made itself felt throughout both authoritarian and democratic countries. Abramowitz noted that this year’s report has “a great amount of focus on China’s repressions domestically,” as well as on the spread of Chinese-style digital authoritarianism beyond that country’s borders.

“There’s an increasing convergence of aims between openly authoritarian governments and anti-liberal leaders in democratic systems. The attacks on rights and freedoms around the globe are bound up in the Internet.”

Adrian Shahbaz, Research Director, Technology and Democracy, Freedom House

Next, Adrian Shahbaz provided an overview of the report, touching on its key conclusions and laying the groundwork for the panel to begin a larger conversation. Shahbaz’s full presentation can be viewed here.

Adrian Shahbaz presenting the Freedom on the Net 2018 report at Stanford University
“Democracies have done a very bad job of adapting to how technology makes open societies vulnerable. We used to dream about how the Internet would make us more democratic, even bring direct democracy. How far we’ve gone from that ideal.”

Renee DiResta, Director of Research, New Knowledge; Head of Policy, Data for Democracy

Renee DiResta began with a helpful definition of disinformation: the deliberate spread of incorrect information. She focused on the cross-platform nature of disinformation campaigns, where malign actors take advantage of the broad array of social media platforms to push their narrative on multiple fronts, often jumping from one to another as platforms change their rules or enact bans. Finally, DiResta discussed how malevolent actors use ‘closed platforms’ such as WhatsApp and group conversations within those platforms. These spaces allow extreme views to go unchallenged and without counter-argument while offering their authors the advantage of broadcasting their message to a specially targeted audience. Despite the popular narrative of the Internet as a tool of democratization through free debate, closed group platforms are set up in ways that do not allow for debates or counter-arguments to surface, potentially yielding the opposite of the intended result.

“Conspiracist communities worked to acquire audiences and used them to impact policy and shape legislation. This is exactly the kind of digital activism that one would want to see online — except it was being done by fringe groups that are very small in the real world. Facilitated by the platforms, these small-world social networks of like-minded people were able to find each other with very little counterspeech.”

Camille François, Research and Analysis Director, Graphika

Camille François noted that disinformation online is not a problem that arose with the 2016 elections in the United States. In fact, the events in the U.S. were only the most recent manifestation of a larger disinformation campaign that made itself felt first in Ukraine and also targeted Canada, the UK, and France, among others. François singled out the concept of “patriotic trolling,” which she defined as covert harassment and hate campaigns organized by state actors. Examples of this behavior abound on the Telegram messaging service, where patriotic trolls coordinate to share personal information (“doxxing”) that targets journalists and human rights activists. Another common tactic of these digital operatives is to game the reporting systems of platforms to silence targeted individuals, especially in non-English language conversations. The lack of deep contextual information severely limits content moderators’ understanding of many posts, which may persuade them to err on the side of deletion.

“We have seen how patriotic trolling works in government-coordinated hate campaigns against targeted dissidents. People would join a Telegram channel and there would be shared targets, narratives, media, and links. So it could be, ‘Today we’re going after this person. Here’s their Facebook profile, here’s their Twitter, here’s a meme about them, and here’s the narrative we’re trying to push out.’ More often than not, this kind of activity targets women.”

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Fellow, Global Digital Policy Incubator; Former President of Estonia

Toomas Hendrik Ilves emphasized that the issue is not simply one of Russian meddling and disinformation campaigns. “Computational propaganda” has become a modus operandi for state actors from Iran, Syria, and elsewhere to engage in extensive online disinformation campaigns. He also argued that the anonymous nature of bots,especially in the context of political advertising, may damage democracy significantly. It is therefore essential, Ilves argues, that political groups announce their identities in a transparent way.

“I think inevitably we will end up with some kind of tripartite division of the Internet between the laissez-faire free-for-all we have here in the United States, the Chinese authoritarian model, and the intermediate, privacy-respecting, but nonetheless interventionist approach we see in the European Union.”

Judy Estrin, Chief Executive Officer, JLABS, LLC.

Judy Estrin zoomed out from the conversation about disinformation and assessed the larger role of technology in our society. As a former student of Vinton Cerf (often known as “the father of the Internet”) and a pioneer in building the Internet’s infrastructure, she expressed profound disappointment about how the Internet has become increasingly centered around Facebook and Google. She argued that the problem was not just about how disinformation is impacting democracy, but also about how it is affecting us as humans and as a society.

Estrin noted that the amplification of hate and outrage is built into the business model of many Internet services, which leads to a fragmentation of information that can have far-reaching social implications. This alters our ability to think critically and have constructive debates, and leads to a loss of context in the content we consume online. She stressed that these same qualities — critical thinking, contextualization, and open debate — provide the basis for a functioning democracy. Estrin ended her talk by pointing out that what we have seen so far is either the state or platforms controlling the flow of information. Both models have been riddled with problems, suggesting that what we need now are new forms of collective governance. This may be hard to achieve, but the communities of of academics, policymakers, NGOs, and regular users all have a responsibility to participate in its design and implementation.

“Debate and friction are a critical part of democracy. The amplification of outrage and hate are fundamentally built into the business model of these products, eroding the debate and making us more susceptible to authoritarianism. To find a solution, we need collective governance mechanisms.”

Larry Diamond, Senior Fellow, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution

The roundtable’s final participant was GDPi’s own Larry Diamond. Diamond focused on the role of China and the rise of digital authoritarianism. In recent years, China has transitioned from building up the defensive infrastructure of its censorship regime to offensive posturing beyond its borders. China’s defense strategy revolved around implementing the ‘Great Firewall’ — a continually updated battery of regulations and technological measures to monitor conversations, stamp out dissent, and execute censorship online. The Great Firewall helps the regime to remain aware of conversations and defend itself from potential existential threats. The offense consists of proactive activities such as the Social Credit System and AI-enabled surveillance tools. The Chinese government has recently moved to expand its operations from the domestic sphere to the global, setting a concerning precedent for the exportation of censorship and social monitoring tools with the capacity to exercise total control over any society. Diamond suggested that the ultimate goal of China’s efforts to sell technologies of surveillance and censorship abroad is both regional and global dominance.

Another poorly explored angle, in Diamond’s view, is the intimate association of Chinese technology companies with the ruling Communist Party of China. On the surface, these companies may operate like their Western counterparts (such as Google and Facebook), but when the Party issues a request for user data, they have no option but to comply. The business world and the single-party state in China are mutually dependent. The downstream effects of expanding Chinese investment in (and partial ownership of) Western companies are too severe to be ignored, especially with regard to the Chinese state’s access to users’ personal data.

“We’ve got maybe five to eight years to win this battle before it’s completely lost. China is the digital superpower of the world with respect to surveillance mechanisms not only for their own people or the people of other corrupt autocracies, but for all the other democracies that they’re penetrating and investing in.”

Larry Diamond ended by stressing the need for more specific and tougher policy recommendations than those formulated by Freedom House so far. He argued for policies that “inform companies and societies around the world about the real motives of Chinese digital engagement.” Diamond called for direct challenges to China in regard to its data localization practices and its attempts to acquire U.S. data companies.


Putting It (Back) Together

Several overarching themes ran through the speakers’ contributions. First, the combination of digital disinformation, uncontrolled data collection, and authoritarian models of Internet governance present a pernicious threat around the world. These cross-platform, transnational trends did not originate in the United States and date to well before the 2016 presidential election. They manifest themselves in a wide variety of cultural and political environments. Consequently, the solutions we pursue must address local incarnations of these problems in different contexts and on multiple platforms. Second, new governance mechanisms that facilitate greater accountability must be developed for content moderation on digital platforms, and the time to discuss their potential structure and scope is now. Finally, strong counterweights are necessary to the malicious ways in which traditional advertising strategies have been used online.

There is a growing consensus that a critical first step to overcoming the challenges discussed in both the report and the roundtable is to apply established human rights standards rooted in international law to the digital realm. For this to be achieved, we must recognize that, in the words of Larry Diamond, “human rights are digital rights and digital rights are human rights.”

For full video coverage of this event, please click here.

The 2018 “Freedom on the Net” report is available here.

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