Jason Pielemeier is the policy director of the Global Network Initiative. The views expressed here are in his personal capacity. You can follow him @pielemeier
In just under a decade, the narrative about the internet has shifted dramatically. What was once seen as a tool that would inevitably cripple corruption, topple dictators, and liberate minorities, the internet is now seen as a technology that enables surveillance, amplifies hate speech, and displaces labor. While the challenges are real and grave, it is worth carefully examining this fatalistic assessment, which obscures how much freedom remains online, and risks inviting steps that could imperil the internet’s enduring potential.
The internet evolved as an anomaly—government-funded research and development led to technology that found a perfect petri dish in which to flourish among tinkerers who wanted to share information. Eventually, commercial initiatives came along and expanded the audience by building out infrastructure, professionalizing services, and generating revenue. The internet’s commercial growth in the 1990s coincided with and was accelerated by an era of global deregulatory zeal, surplus capital, and geopolitical hubris. As a result, the internet became inexorably associated with the optimism of that moment in history. The mutually-reinforcing orthodoxies of free markets and free speech underlie the concept of “internet freedom,” which is often conflated with the U.S. government’s lauded and derided strategy of the same name.
Today’s internet with rampant data collection, surveillance, and censorship may indeed seem grim when viewed from the idealistic perch of the 1990s. But from the perspective of today’s authoritarian regimes and information monopolists, the internet continues to present an ever-expanding threat surface. Bloggers continue to expose uncomfortable truths, journalists use encrypted apps to communicate with whistleblowers, entrepreneurs find ways to leapfrog legacy technology, and vulnerable minorities work around firewalls to seek and receive support across borders. While China presents an important counterpoint, the amount of resources and effort consistently invested by the Chinese Communist Party is unlikely to be feasible for most countries.
One of the reasons internet freedom seems so imperiled is because it has been measured using an unrealistic baseline. Freedom House’s excellent, annual Freedom of the Net assessment is the most comprehensive yardstick. Using a broad set of indicators, it has repeatedly reported declining metrics for much of the world since 2011. But inherent in this methodology is an unrealistic assumption that it is feasible to return to the halcyon days of the early internet.
A better baseline from which to assess freedom online is the relevant amount of freedom that is afforded online. From this perspective, what is remarkable is not how much freedom has been curtailed, but rather how much still remains. For example, comparing Freedom House’s internet freedom assessment to its similar Freedom of the Press Index reveals that twenty-one of the sixty-five countries in the former are assessed as “more free” online than they are on press freedom. Furthermore, no country is ranked less free on the internet index as they are in the press freedom one, indicating that countries assessed are freer online than they are in the press. The internet continues to provide opportunities for expression, access to information, and truth telling that simply do not exist offline in places like Angola, Kenya, and Malaysia.
Furthermore, the steps governments take to protect or restrict rights online only tell part of the story. Companies also play important roles by enhancing or restricting access, pushing back on or facilitating government restrictions, and addressing or enabling harassment and other threats to users. Standard-setting bodies are underappreciated actors in this space, often operating with surprising degrees of autonomy from state actors and wielding enormous, if subtle, influence. Civil society educates users and organizes initiatives to address challenges, in addition to exposing and advocating against rights infringements.
Looking across the landscape, tools like the Global Network Initiative’s Country Legal Frameworks, which document and allow comparison of relevant laws, complement Freedom of the Net, which assesses enforcement of those laws. Recent efforts to facilitate and bring rigor to such cross-indicator analysis, like UNESCO’s Internet Universality Indicators and Mozilla’s Internet Health Report, will allows activists, businesses and governments piece together a more holistic assessment of the state of internet freedom.
There is a fine-line between complacency and fatalism. During the first two-decades of the internet’s growth, too much faith was put in the technology itself. Not enough was done to address challenges such as the spread of surveillance technologies, abuse of online platforms, and the general undermining of trust.
As the United States, Europe, and platforms now work to devise solutions to these problems, they run a risk of unintentionally joining ranks with the malign forces who have been clamoring to stifle freedom online. Instead, they should work with NGOs and academics to establish better baselines and metrics to assess the internet’s true impact, as well as the kinds of actions that enable the good and mitigate the bad. Meanwhile, advocates for the open internet should acknowledge that regulation can help, while remaining vigilant to unintended consequences. Finally, all of these stakeholders should continue to forge coalitions like the Global Network Initiative that work across borders in support of flexible, focused, and rights-compliant efforts to improve freedom online.
The internet is a reflection of those who build, use, and govern it. Although it is impossible to return to the early days of the internet, we can and should still fight to preserve it as an open, enabling, and secure medium.