Last week I moderated a panel at RightsCon that asked whether the internet freedom strategy is dead. The framing of the panel, which was inspired by an October post by my colleague David Fidler, is a bit of a tell of what I thought of the strategy's current status. But I return from Toronto, if not optimistic of a quick and full recovery, then convinced that the patient is still alive, or at least not completely dead.
The strategy, launched by the State Department in 2008, is an effort to support a free and open internet through the funding of civil society groups, training of activists, and developing technological responses to surveillance, filtering, and censorship. In his original post, David pointed out some of the headwinds the strategy faced under the Trump administration: a growth of repression globally; a lack of interest in internet freedom in the White House and State Department; and a new focus on the internal threats of the internet to the United States, especially the spreading of disinformation and misinformation by Russian-backed actors. According to Freedom House, not only has internet freedom declined for seven consecutive years, but governments have redoubled their efforts to manipulate information on social media through bots and armies of "opinion shapers."
While the panelists echoed many of David's concerns, they were more optimistic about the overall impact of the strategy. They argued that it was easier to measure the negative trends than the even worse things that did not happen because of the strategy. They noted that the State Department never stopped its internet freedom work, though it was severely handicapped by the lack of attention from former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the hiring freeze he put in place (and just reversed by Secretary Pompeo). The Freedom Online Coalition, a partnership of thirty governments, continues to meet and issue statements. They pointed to continued interest in the strategy in Congress and a recent increase in funding. And they stressed the importance of other, non-governmental actors such as the Global Network Initiative.
There was widespread agreement that the strategy needed to be re-energized. A reboot of the strategy would include new funding; high-level statements from executive agencies and other policymakers; new engagement with the technology companies; meaningful export controls; and sanctions on human rights abusers. There was, though, little sense of who should and would take the lead. Having Washington take up the mantle again risks miring the strategy in the same geopolitical struggles that defined it when it first rolled out, with Moscow and Beijing in particular seeing it as part of an effort of regime change. Northern European countries such as Estonia, Netherlands, and Sweden were robust voices, but personnel changes and new issues have meant there has been some loss of focus. Moreover, these small countries could never match the resources and attention that the United States can mobilize. Many in the room thought it would be great if countries outside of Europe began promoting the agenda, say Japan or South Korea, though none seemed to think it was likely.
The overall picture is not particularly sanguine, but also maybe not as bad as I expected. The Internet Governance Project may have summed up the feeling of the room best: the strategy is "not dead, heart is still beating, but it's in a wheelchair and inconsistencies in Europe and US may be rolling it off a cliff."
Panel on the death or life of the internet freedom agenda at @rightscon seems to decide that it is not dead, heart is still beating, but it's in a wheelchair and inconsistencies in Europe and US may be rolling it off a cliff— IGP Alert (@IGPAlert) May 16, 2018