Since its inception, the internet has proven itself as a powerful tool for immense social change and democratization. Online platforms have inherently altered the way people communicate, conduct business, socialize, and participate in public life. At the same time, the rise of online communications has led to notable policy challenges, ranging from cybersecurity to surveillance to content regulation. Amid a never-ending cycle of news reports about government collection of metadata, cyberattacks from hostile nations, and so-called “Twitter revolutions” – what can we say about the state of internet freedom and its future? Where should policymakers and other stakeholders direct their attention among competing trends and priorities?
Conducting a longitudinal study of internet freedom presents a number of inherent challenges, but this research is vital to making informed choices to keep the internet free and open. Throughout the ebbs and flows in the global conversation around internet freedom, Freedom House’s annual report Freedom on the Net provides a consistent measurement of countries’ performance on 21 discrete indicators—ranging from questions concerning access, content, and rights—to bring to light both global trends and important local developments in the field.
The report serves as a platform for activists around the world to engage policymakers and other stakeholders in research-based advocacy. Additionally, the report’s findings provide essential context to these global debates in order to complicate prevailing myths about the state of internet freedom that may cloud the decisions of various stakeholders. Apart from Freedom on the Net, resources such as ISOC’s Global Internet Report are indispensable for anyone hoping to better understand the immense potential of the internet and how to best utilize it for social good.
Sub-Saharan Africa, as just one example, has been the focus of efforts to expand access to ICTs, and many success stories have emerged where entrepreneurs, humanitarian organizations, and tech experts have capitalized on these technologies for social good. However, our research across the region has shown that over the years, expanding ICT access has led governments to pay greater attention to the disruptive power of the internet, resulting in an increase in restrictive policies and declines in internet freedom. Half of the countries under study enacted new surveillance laws over the past year that aim to increase the government’s ability to monitor and intercept online or mobile phone communications, and more bloggers, online journalists, and ordinary internet users were arrested for their online activities than in previous years. These kinds of trends are essential for policymakers and technology companies to take into account: as ICT access expands in the region, so do the threats and challenges for ICT users.
This type of consistent quantitative analysis—the number and types of new laws that are passed, the number of bloggers that are arrested, or the websites blocked—generates powerful insight into the state of internet freedom on regional and global levels. Not all developments in internet freedom can be captured through quantitative analysis alone, though. Each year, Freedom House also publishes individual narrative reports written by analysts in each country under study, providing detailed qualitative analysis of the local contexts in which internet freedom battles are fought. Many countries lack consistent data about ICT access and policies, or are intentionally opaque about surveillance practices. These individual country reports provide various audiences with an immediate snapshot of the most pressing threats to internet freedom in a given country, and highlight the ways in which different governments favor some restrictive methods over others—for example, choosing to arrest and intimidate online activists as a means of discouraging dissent, while generally blocking very little content.
To produce this detailed analysis, we rely on a team of over 70 contributors around the world—some of whom operate under repressive or authoritarian regimes—to undertake thorough research by analyzing laws, conducting interviews, and testing the accessibility of websites. In some cases, the security situation in a given country is so fragile that researching internet rights puts these analysts at considerable risk, and it is an ongoing challenge in the field of internet research to ensure the safety and security of those individuals on the ground.
In addition to identifying global trends and producing country reports, the 2014 edition of Freedom on the Net highlighted emerging threats to internet freedom—threats that may either be isolated to a few countries but are gaining traction around the world, or issues that are pervasive but lack substantial attention from the global policy community. Data localization requirements, a lack of cybersecurity, and harassment of women and LBGTI users were all identified as trends that are placing the rights of internet users at increasing risk.
As issues related to internet freedom continue to make headlines, policymakers can be understandably prone to reactive approaches, formulating action plans based on the pressing issues of the day. Long-term, global research based on a consistent methodology can provide much needed context to these decisions. Moving forward, research of this nature will continue to face challenges, but will ultimately provide essential tools for stakeholders who are fighting to keep the internet open and sustainable.