What Happens When Internet Freedom Reports are Themselves Not Free

More than questions of funding and sponsorship, Freedom House’s ‘Freedom on the Net’ report needs to be open about the problems with its methodology and approach to defining and measuring challenges to the Internet

An artist's representation of the Internet freedom debate. Credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

An artist’s representation of the Internet freedom debate. Credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

“Freedom House Challenged on Net Freedom Index; Google Influence Permeates Project”, reads the headline of a quiet press release put out by the U.S-based National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) last week.

For the unaware, Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation, and its annual ‘Freedom on the Net’ (FOTN) report are the gold standard when it comes to measuring Internet freedom and digital rights around the world. The report is the Michelin Guide for the field of Internet studies – often cited by prominent activists, researchers and think-tanks – minus all the glamour and prestige that accompanies the awarding of a Michelin star.

The NLPC, however, believes that Freedom House needs to do much more to avoid potential conflicts of interest. In particular, in a letter to Freedom House president Mark Lagon, the organisation accuses Freedom House of an “unusually high degree of influence laundering by Google”.

The NLPC has three major grievances, the first two of which relate to funding transparency and various financial links between Google and the drafting of the FOTN report. For instance, NLPC’s quick, and admittedly surface-level, research shows that the country-specific reports of the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ukraine, South Africa and Nigeria have been drafted by authors who have received funding or financial support from Google in the past or have been advocates for issues that are favourable to Google’s public policy agenda.

In addition to this, NLPC points out that Google remains a major and highly visible corporate sponsor of Freedom House itself; the Internet freedom index  is often launched at Google’s offices or the launch events include speakers who head Google’s various international policy initiatives.

The third and more crucial grievance is how the first two issues relate to the way Freedom House conceptually views Internet freedom: in the US-specific section for instance, the recent FCC decision to regulate the Internet as a public utility (a development favourable for Google) is seen as increasing Internet freedom in the US whereas in other countries references to government regulation are seen as an indicator of decreasing Internet freedom.

More importantly, other highly contested issues such as data localisation and Europe’s Right to Be Forgotten (RTBF), which are crucial to Google’s commercial interests,  are flagged by Freedom House as threats to Internet freedom even though a number of activists and digital commentators believe they will strengthen digital rights.

Defined by G. Pino as “the right to silence on past events in life that are no longer occurring”, the RTBF would mean the right of individuals to have certain details about their past – information about past convictions or misdemeanours, or perhaps a compromising photograph – deleted from the Internet so that search engines like Google can no longer serve them up. In the Argentina-specific section of the most recent FOTN report, the author, who has called the right to be forgotten laws “an insult to Latin American history”, devotes significant attention to discussion of a relevant legal case within the country.

The NLPC ends its letter, warning that “corporate interests may seek to leverage and capitalise on Freedom House’s credibility to launder their own corporate policy interests disguised as ‘Internet freedom’ issues.”

Bigger issues beyond the funding

While the NLPC raises important issues, its critique surrounding issues of funding is shallow and not well-considered. Dismissing research purely on the basis of an institution’s funding, or the various financial links that the report’s authors may have had in the past, can come dangerously close to mud-slinging.

Take, for instance, the India-specific section of the recently released FOTN report. It was authored by the New Delhi-based Centre for Communication Governance, an institution whose research director is Chinmayi Arun. While the CCG doesn’t appear to receive any funding directly from Google, it does get some money from Freedom House itself. It would be possible to argue, therefore, by NLPC’s standards, that the India-section of the FOTN report is tainted.

However, anybody who actually reads the India-country portion of the report will find it to be a comprehensive, well-rounded assessment that gives prominent attention to the recent Net Neutrality/anti-Airtel/Internet.org movement in India – an issue that is undoubtedly harmful to Google’s “public policy interests”. Furthermore, it is wholly possible that genuine Internet freedom issues can coincide with corporate public interests, even as we continue to view any alliances with companies with suspicion.

While there is little doubt that the role money plays in influencing the outcomes of research is an area that must be carefully monitored, one of the more older sayings within academic circles is that there’s no such thing as clean funding. It would have been far better for NLPC to critique Freedom House’s core methodology or research criteria, which it does not directly do.

On the other hand, when it comes to issues such as data localisation and the Right to be Forgotten, Freedom House is on shakier ground.

The organisation clearly and urgently needs to  adopt a less Silicon Valley-friendly and less US-centric approach. In its section on data localisation, in the 2014 FOTN report, Freedom House argues that if countries such as Russia demand that Russian data remain on Russian soil, it could lead greater government surveillance. The implication here of course is that the data is much safer on American soil; an assurance and myth that was demolished by Edward Snowden in 2013.

Some of this patronisation stems from Freedom House’s history of viewing Internet regulation and freedom through the important but sometimes stifling prisms of censorship, surveillance, democracy and authoritarianism. The rest of it comes from the early tradition of Internet optimists believing that they were on the same boat as the companies that built the commercial Internet. Categories such as sovereignty, the public good, social and cultural norms and non-market mechanisms are simply not taken into account.

This perspective also rushes Freedom House into taking positions, the way it has with Right to be Forgotten. While the European Court of Justice’s judgment may indeed impact freedom of expression online, the issue is still being hotly debated by Internet activists and technology commentators and fails to take into account the way Internet and digital freedoms can actually be strengthened as a result of its passing.

The biggest takeaways from the NLPC’s observations is that we can no longer view Google, Facebook and the rest of Silicon Valley as champions of Internet freedom and fellow fighters; a perception that lingers from the 1990s. In the US, Google and Facebook fight vigorously for net neutrality when it suits their commercial interests. In India and other developing countries, however, they actively root against Internet freedom and net neutrality by promoting zero-rating programmes. How then can the FOTN report maintain credibility in developing countries, at least on a superficial level, when Freedom House launches the report at Google’s offices in Washington D.C?

Disclosures of funding and previous corporate affiliations are therefore an important first step. While it would be premature and short-sighted to demand  that all Internet think-tanks receive zero funding from technology companies, especially considering the lack  of financial resources within the field, if the FOTN report is to be as inclusive as the Internet it must strive to keep an arms-length distance from companies that seek to take away our Internet freedom.