Internet freedom declines globally while internet regulation grows, leading study shows – AEI – American Enterprise Institute: Freedom, Opportunity, Enterprise22nd November 2018
The US State Department funds Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net report to the tune of about half a million dollars annually. Over the years, the report provided valuable information and comparisons of different countries, particularly highlighting individuals and groups persecuted online by foreign governments. However, this year’s report took a partisan stand to downgrade the score of the US because of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) effort to restore internet freedom. Ironically Freedom House gave the US its highest scores in 2011-2012 when Title II regulation was not applied to broadband, when mobile networks were free from internet regulation, and when Federal Trade Commission (FTC) oversight of the internet was in effect.
Freedom House reports that internet freedom globally has declined for the eighth year in row. Tellingly, there has been a boom in net neutrality and other internet regulation globally during this period. Regulatory advocates celebrate the same countries for making rules that Freedom House derides for their anti-freedom efforts. This was already the case in 2015, as I pointed out. Some of the most egregious examples of countries where net neutrality coexists with restrictions on internet freedom include Pakistan with some 73 obstacles, Turkey with 66, India with 43, and Brazil with 31. These are countries where social media and political speech can be blocked as a rule, and where bloggers and journalists are imprisoned — even executed — for their online speech. Some US advocates see India as a country to emulate and praised California for modeling its internet regulation on India.
Freedom House Research Director Adrian Shabaz explained the scoring criteria of the report, noting in an email, “We cover net neutrality in our methodology under B6, and under A5, we evaluate the telecommunications regulator. I recognize many in the field have very legitimate philosophical differences on how best to protect net neutrality and the impact of the FCC’s actions over the past year.” However, the methodology on B6 does not state whether a net neutrality rule is present, it only assesses how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) manage their networks. A5 covers the independence of the telecom regulator.
It is not clear how these two criteria would lead to a downgrading of the US score. Freedom House’s complaint is that the FCC restored the pre-2015 regime under FTC jurisdiction (incidentally the regime that governed the internet from 1996 with success), not that ISPs have been mismanaging networks. Moreover, the report does not provide an assessment of the regulator’s independence, but instead disagrees with 2017 policy decisions on net neutrality, online privacy, zero rating, and municipal broadband, in lock step with Democratic Party positions. A proper assessment of regulatory independence would have rewarded the current FCC for denying mergers perceived to be favorable to the current administration, the Chairman’s rejection of overtures by the president, and its efforts to increase transparency. Indeed, Chairman Pai ensures that all meeting materials are publicly available three weeks in advance, in contrast with the Obama FCC, which dropped hundreds of pages of documents to the other parties’ commissioners the night before the meeting on the Open Internet Order and kept rulemaking details secret until after the FCC vote. Modernization efforts such as Congress’ reauthorization of the FCC after some 30 years should also be counted as a plus, but these aren’t discussed.
In addition, Freedom House’s official methodology rewards ISPs and internet organizations for forming “self-regulatory mechanisms” (A5). Indeed, these soft measures have been found to be the most successful instruments to protect net neutrality, but they contradict the 2015 FCC’s approach.
A review of the US report by Brent Skorup of Mercatus notes Freedom House’s focus on net neutrality platitudes and its uncritical assessment of the 2015 policy, which was quite clear in allowing ISPs to block content and to prioritize services. “If there was a model to would-be despots around the world, it was the Title II classification in 2015, which gave greater war power authority to the president to prioritize the president’s favored communications over the internet,” notes Skorup. Tech Freedom’s Berin Szoka also explained this chilling fact, which Freedom House does not acknowledge. Skorup exposes how Freedom House’s methodological shortcoming puts the US (score 22, lower is better) in the same camp as the UK (score 23), “a country that is arresting thousands of online trolls and posters annually for ‘grossly offensive’ social media posts. . . . Needless to say, nothing in the US, and certainly not the recent internet deregulation, compares to these mass arrests and convictions for online behavior.”
Indeed, the Freedom House report declares, “Internet users in the United States face few government-imposed restrictions on their ability to access content online,” and it cheers the “backbone infrastructure owned and maintained by private telecommunications companies, including AT&T and Verizon. In contrast to countries with only a few connections to the backbone internet infrastructure, the United States has numerous connection points, which would make it nearly impossible to disconnect the entire country from the internet.”
It is disappointing that an organization that has hard-earned credibility would succumb to servicing a partisan agenda, particularly when it is funded by taxpayers.