Allie Funk of Freedom House Assesses Global Internet Freedom

Allie Funk

Allie Funk is the Research Director for Technology and Democracy at Freedom House. She was deeply involved in this year’s Freedom on the Net report and coauthored the executive summary “Countering an Authoritarian Overhaul of the Internet” along with Adrian Shahbaz and Kian Vesteinsson.

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The Internet’s a battle space. I think this year unfortunately we’ve seen that more than ever with Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine about how the internet and digital platforms are used to pursue authoritarian ends or to promote democracy and freedom and help people stay safe during armed conflict.

Allie Funk

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:42
  • The Importance of Internet Freedom – 2:42
  • Where Internet Freedom Improved – 6:34
  • Internet Freedom in the China – 18:25
  • Internet Freedom as Transnational – 25:11

Podcast Transcript

Last week Freedom House published its Freedom on the Net Report. It’s titled “Countering an Authoritarian Overhaul of the Internet.” For those unfamiliar with the Freedom on the Net report, it’s one of the two flagship reports from Freedom House. The other is Freedom in the World. I was lucky to get a chance to speak with one of the project leads, Allie Funk. Allie is the Research Director for Technology and Democracy at Freedom House. 

Our conversation touches on some of the high level findings and implications. We do not walk through every country score, but Allie does provide a few specific examples throughout our conversation. But what I enjoy most about my conversations with Freedom House is the way their team blends research with human rights activism. You’ll find Allie is knowledgable, but also passionate about human rights and internet freedom. 

If you enjoy this conversation, please give the podcast a 5 star rating and review. Recently, I’ve noticed some wonderful reviews on Apple podcasts. Here are a couple headlines I want to read. “Cogent, timely political science insights for all audiences.” Another one was “Great, thought-provoking and succinct.” Both of these touch on exactly what I want the podcast to deliver so they mean a lot to me. If you feel the same way, I hope you’ll leave a rating or review especially those listening on Apple or Spotify. But for now… This is my conversation with Allie Funk…

jmk

Allie Funk, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Allie Funk

Hi, Justin. Thanks so much for having me.

jmk

Well, Allie, this year’s report is incredibly impressive: “Freedom on the Net 2022: Countering an Authoritarian Overhaul of the Internet.” I’m always floored by how detailed these reports are. I mean, Freedom House puts a lot of effort into this. This is one of the flagship reports along with Freedom in the World. This is what it’s known for and I think that it says a lot about what Freedom House thinks about the importance of the internet for the idea of overall human rights. How important it is to be able to protect human rights and even just being a human right to have freedom on the internet? Why is freedom on the net considered so important for overall human rights?

Allie Funk

I think back often to our 2020 report which you know obviously came out in October 2020 during the height of the pandemic. The first line I think was, ‘Connectivity, it’s no longer a convenience, but a necessity.’ I think about that a lot because it’s obvious, but that doesn’t make it less true. You need access to the internet ultimately to do anything whether it’s just doing your job, talking to like my mom, who to vote for, figuring out how to get around the subway in New York, or, I’m abroad right now, so figuring out how I will get home from the airport. The internet is so essential to everyday life that without a free and open internet you just couldn’t go about your day. You really couldn’t in the same way. So, I think that’s one reason.

You know, another sort of way to think about it is the Internet’s a battle space. I think this year unfortunately we’ve seen that more than ever with Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine about how the internet and digital platforms are used to pursue authoritarian ends or to promote democracy and freedom and help people stay safe during armed conflict. If you look at the really incredible work the Ukrainian government has done and how it has worked with private companies and other international actors to make sure people in Ukraine can stay online, it shows you how access is really life changing and life-saving.

jmk

The report notes that global Internet Freedom has declined for 12 consecutive years. It’s something that’s consistent with the “Freedom in the World” report as well. For freedom on the net in particular, what’s driving the decline?

Allie Funk

So, like you said it’s the 12th consecutive year of decline. We’ve done the report for 13 years, so that means every year it has declined. This year our big theme is really how we are rapidly accelerating toward a siloed internet. One in which each government controls its own domestic enclave rather than what we have now and to some extent, the global internet. Their goal is to digitally isolate their own populations so they can censor their dissent, hoard more personal data, and cultivate an online space that matches the government’s own interest. So, I would say that is one of the biggest drivers of rising internet fragmentation. But it’s also some of the more quote unquote standard digital repression tactics. People are increasingly arrested for expressing themselves online. Social media platforms continue to be blocked around protests or elections.

So, you have just a raft of new surveillance and censorship laws. It’s not a pretty picture. We do have some positive developments and I hope that we can get to some of those because I think folks need like a breath. But those are the main reasons for the decline.

jmk

Well, why don’t we do that right now? The report actually highlights 26 different countries that saw improvements. I was really surprised by that, to be honest. I wonder if that’s somewhat a regression to the mean or a bounce back from the pandemic. But why don’t you tell us why so many countries are overcoming what has been an overall negative trend?

Allie Funk

So, I was shocked when we were doing all of our scores. I mean, there was one point in the summer when I was like, ‘Oh, my God. Are we going to say internet freedom improved for the first year? That’s going to be amazing.’ But no. We were two countries short. So, we had 26 countries improve compared to 28 declines. So, when we were digging into the data, we asked, ‘Why is that?’ I think there is some a sense that a lot of the countries are sort of leveling out, meaning that they’re kind of as bad as they’re going to be or as good as they’re going to be.

So, you have backsliding democracies that have problematic surveillance laws and they’re kind of just doing more the same. So, it’s not going to create a score change. There’s some extent of that. But what we’ve noticed is governments, tech companies, and civil society have spent years pushing for internet freedom. Millions of dollars have been spent on this. I think we’re actually starting to see the results of that. You don’t see it in every issue area. But the one it pops up the most is around internet shutdowns. This year we had a fewer number of countries out of the 70 that shut off the internet and when they did, the shutdowns were more localized and they were not as long. So, they were temporary.

So, when we think about why would this be the case, civil society over the past five years has gone all in on trying to change the norms around shutdowns, to raise awareness about the problem, advocate to democratic governments, advocate at the UN, and working with telecommunications companies about how to push back when the government orders them. You’re seeing a shift. The G7, the Freedom Online Coalition, and the United Nations all have condemned internet shutdowns as a tactic. That would not have been the case four years ago. One example is Iraq. Iraq had an election recently. During the previous election, the government shut off the internet. This election, they didn’t. Ahead of the vote, civil society groups engaged with the government and said, ‘Please don’t do this. Here are the harms.’ That’s having a really tangible effect. So, I think that’s a bright spot.

Some of the other areas that we track in the report that’s working include courts increasingly overturning problematic laws or bad decisions by the government. The judiciary has become sort of a bulwark for internet freedom. The private sector is also stepping up a lot. You know, not consistently and not always, but we found, I think it was, over 30 countries where the private sector pushed back against government demands. Then also regulators and policy makers generally worked closely with civil society to craft better laws. So, I just think that’s a really fantastic way to think about the bad stuff, because we try to create a roadmap for what do we will do moving forward.

jmk

So, countries typically shut down the internet because they’re afraid. They have fears that things are going to have disastrous outcomes. Iraq is one of those countries that’s kind of floating between being autocratic and democratic. It has elections albeit with questions of how free and fair they are and definitely questions of what kind of civil liberties are available. I’m sure they’re concerned about electoral violence around the time of an election.

What was the impact or what’s the difference during this past year? Did it turn out that those fears were completely misplaced? Does it turn out that those fears weren’t really so much fears, but were simply power grabs? Did political leaders look back on their decisions and say, ‘Hey, maybe this is something that we can continue to do to keep the internet open because it’s really not as bad as we had thought before that. We can get through this by preserving civil liberties.’

Allie Funk

That’s a great question. I’ll start by saying there’s a lot of different reasons governments will shut down the internet. I’ll throw social media blocks in as well, because those often happen together. It’s kind of across the board. I mean, disinformation is a big one, protests, elections, one of the ones that always kind of makes me laugh is cheating on exams, national security, public morality, and public safety. All of these get thrown in and sometimes they’ll say it’s disinformation, public security, and then you just kind of know as an analyst of the country that it’s just to quell organizing and they’re just using that framework as a justification.

But for the governments that they’re actually doing this because they’re worried about disinformation, I’m thinking about Sri Lanka where social media was blocked during the protest or a few years ago when the internet was shut down during communal violence, I think part of the switch is civil society and the tech sector have been really effective in advocating the harms. There’s been a lot of research to showcase the economic toll that shutdowns have. So, businesses might not want to actually operate in a country where shutdowns are prevalent, because it really hurts their bottom line. A company might be like, ‘It’s not worth the risk.’

It undermines their own safety. I think folks probably also share this a lot with businesses as well. If the internet is shut off or social media are blocked and there’s a terrorist attack so you can’t contact your family and friends, you don’t know where they are, you don’t know how to get home, that’s terrifying. So, advocates against this form of censorship have been really effective at showcasing the harms and proving that their evidence and then coming up with alternative solutions. ‘Here’s an alternative option we could do that is going to be protective of human rights while also tackling the problem.’

jmk

That’s definitely great news that we’re able to kind of overcome that and it’s definitely something that you want to see those countries that mean well to avoid doing things that harm human rights. I mean, in my opinion, those would be the low hanging fruit of being able to have a freer internet. Find those cases where people aren’t intentionally trying to do something nefarious, but their policies really do restrict human rights as a result. The United States is an interesting example because we’ve seen their freedom on the net score decline for a long time. But you actually pointed out that their freedom on the net score actually improved. It’s one of those 26 countries. Tell me a little bit about the story of the United States over the past year.

Allie Funk

So, for the United States you’re right. It had a one-point improvement. It’s the first time in really six years which spans multiple administrations. It ranks ninth with Australia and France this year. There just wasn’t a repeat of problematic practices in previous years. We had declined it back in 2020 because of the really big increase of online surveillance and online harassment folks experienced who were organizing online for racial justice around the Black Lives Matter protests. We had a lot of stories about people moving to encrypted platforms because of harassment on Facebook. So, we didn’t see a repeat of some of those cases. The score sort of leveled out or even improved back to where it was.

One of the big stories of the US that I’ve really reflected on over the past year is a mismatch between domestic and foreign policy. Under President Biden’s Administration, they’ve put internet freedom at the forefront of its foreign policy in really impressive ways. You’ve got the Summit for Democracy last December and ongoing this year. It has a tech and democracy stream. You’ve got the Declaration for the Future of the Internet which brought over 60 governments together to outline a positive vision for what the internet could be. US AID has been giving millions of dollars for digital democracy funding. The State Department has a new cyber bureau. I could go on and on and these are really good initiatives. We haven’t seen sort of the effect yet because it’s too early, but great stuff and definitely the administration should be celebrated for it.

But domestically, we haven’t seen the movement we want to see really. It’s particularly true when we think about lack of action from Congress. We’re one of the only countries of our allies that doesn’t have a federal privacy law at all. Like there’s nothing which has just allowed DHS, Department of Homeland Security, ICE, and all these agencies to purchase data from data brokers. It’s this wild west and then they can use it with little to no safeguards because there aren’t limits if you buy it through data brokers. There are also longstanding surveillance issues. There have been no reforms to them. Then thinking about trying to increase diversity in the online market or to strengthen transparency, there’s been no movement on a bunch of bills there either.

So, it’s interesting. It’s like, you know, this is great. But can we do more of this? Because my fear is what we’re tracking can easily be changed, while you want to institute these policies to make them more sustainable into law. So, there’s a bipartisan privacy law right now working its way through that I think would be a big step. So, hopefully I’ll be proved wrong next year, but I think that’s something we’re definitely paying attention to.

jmk

What’s interesting about the United States is it doesn’t have many laws on the books about the internet. So, many people would think that it’s the freest country for the net because there’s not much that the government says you can’t do. But what’s interesting is that the United States is oftentimes losing points because of congressional inaction. The government isn’t stepping in to protect people on the net in different ways. It’s interesting how there’s both a yin and a yang to the extent that you don’t want the government to attack human rights, but at the same time, the government has to step in and still protect human rights on the net. It’s a great lesson for that.

Allie Funk

I think it’s a great lesson even more broadly than just internet freedom, but about democracy and freedom is this laissez fair approach that just lets anything go doesn’t work. It allows for… I don’t necessarily want to say the bad guys, but it allows for the people who want to undermine human rights to do whatever they want too. The role of a government is sometimes to step back and let people do what they want to do. But also, sometimes it’s to step in and pass laws that protect privacy, force transparency, or make a level playing field so smaller companies can insert themselves into the conversation. There’s been a really interesting shift within the broader internet freedom community in the past few years that is like, ‘Oh, this laissez faire approach to the internet created all these harms.’

So, now let’s think about how we craft regulations that can protect human rights, but can’t be misused or at least is limited in how it can be misused either by a government, if a government becomes more repressive, or by other actors that could misuse it. So, it’s been interesting to follow and I think that we’re on the right path. Now we need some sort of engagement from governments to protect these rights and should do that really in partnership with the private sector and civil society so we can bring all these different perspectives together and come out with sort of the best solution.

jmk

Now, of course, the United States does score very well, relatively speaking. I mean, it’s ninth. It’s considered one of those free countries in terms of freedom on the net. So, I don’t want to give the impression that because the score has declined in past years that the United States is comparable to some of the worst of the worst on the report. But the country that is the worst of the worst of every country on the report is China. Can you paint the picture for us about what internet freedom or lack of freedom is like in China so we can understand why it’s scores so poorly on your report?

Allie Funk

So, I think it’s the eighth consecutive year where China’s the worst or the worst. Actually, this year Myanmar is catching up to it. But internet freedom in China, I mean, it’s ultimately non-existent. One of the reasons that China is not totally bottomed out is a methodological approach where you get points for having broad access. So that’s it. When you’re thinking about user protections, censorship, and surveillance, it is as low as you can possibly get. The government’s control over the internet is really all-encompassing. So, it’s perfected this model of digital authoritarianism at home and it’s also on a crusade to convince other governments to do that as well.

It’s sort of this multi-pronged approach where at home it’s got one of the most sophisticated censorship and surveillance regimes in the world. It’s pretty much technically isolated itself. Most international platforms aren’t accessible. Broad censorship of covid-19 continues. This year there were more lockdowns, so folks who criticized it were scrubbed off the internet. There was also a lot of censorship around the Winter Olympics back in January and February. Officials manipulated online content around government narratives or censored criticism of authorities around the Olympic. Then another big censorship moment this year was related to women’s rights against folks talking about sexual assault and harassment. So, that’s the censorship surveillance side. Then there’s this other interesting trend that’s been happening in the past few years where the government has tried to really increase its control over the tech sector there.

You know, China has a booming tech sector. Some of the biggest companies come from there like Alibaba, Byte-Dance, Tencent, and that’s sort of how you get WeChat and TikTok. In recent years, the government’s tried to increase its control over that through big investigations of abuse of market positions or data abuse. If you’re just looking from afar, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ You want to hold companies accountable. But in China’s case, obviously these companies have abused data and have abused their market position that should be investigated. But it’s really more about making sure the state can control the tech sector and make it another arm of the ruling party.

So, that’s one thing I would flag that sort of continued this year. Then on the international stage, China has really increased its efforts to have a big say at the United Nations. There’s this UN agency called the ITU, the International Telecommunications Union. A Chinese diplomat ran that up until September. So, they’ve really been trying to pair the domestic with the international and try to export this digital authoritarianism.

jmk

Is TikTok really banned in China?

Allie Funk

No, so well… So, TikTok has a global version and a domestic version for China and the platform sort of says that the global version, TikTok, that I think a lot of our listeners know is separated by Byte-Dance from China and the domestic version. We don’t know actually that much. There isn’t that much transparency and I think civil society groups have done a lot of work pushing TikTok to be more transparent and to adopt US policies. There’s been a lot of folks who now work at the company who came from some of the other big platforms who are trying to institute some best practices. So, I don’t know what the domestic Chinese version looks like, but we see sort of a lot of the same censorship that you see across WeChat.

jmk

Well, one thing you already alluded to just a few minutes ago was that China’s not just repressive within its own country, it’s also repressive in other countries. I’ve talked to Sarah about it at Freedom House. I just had a piece on the Democracy Paradox blog from Christopher Walker talking about sharp power. I’m a big fan of his work over at the NED that’s been explaining this concept. How has China shaped the internet for other countries?

Allie Funk

Ooh, I feel like we could have a whole podcast on it. I mean, back in the 2018 Freedom on the Net report we actually zoomed in on this question. Our report is called “The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism” and I think that was four, no, that was five years ago. We broke it down in three different ways. There’s definitely been more since then, but I still think it’s a good framing even though the report’s a little bit old. So, we looked at how the Chinese government and Chinese companies, and not all these companies are directly owned by the state. But a lot of times you’ll have party members on a board of the company or you’ll just have close ties. Even if there isn’t that formalized structure, the reality of operating in the country is you often need to abide by the party.

So, the three ways that we broke it down had to do first with looking at Chinese companies selling their telecommunications networks around the world. So, think about 5G expansion. Huawei is really selling that. The second one had to do with selling surveillance tools like CCTV videos, surveillance, facial recognition tools to other countries. Then the third one had to do with formalized media training. So, members of different governments are going to China and meeting with folks or government members from China going to those countries. In one of my favorite examples, folks in Vietnam met with Chinese officials for some media training. Right afterwards Vietnam’s cybersecurity law was introduced and it was very similar to China. So, that is a soft power type thing. Those three are definitely continuing.

Then I think the other one that we’ve seen increase over the past year or two is in the multilateral spaces, so really using the United Nations to their advantage. And it’s not just China. Russia’s been really good at this. So, using those forms to their advantage to normalize authoritarianism and digital repression and then convincing other governments this is the best route. ‘Look at what you can get from it.’ So, that would be the fourth category I’d flag.

jmk

So, the fact that China is not just repressing the net at home, but also abroad makes me think of freedom on the net as not just a national concern, but as something that’s transnational. It’s odd because Freedom House continues to rank countries for their internet freedom. They focus on the country level. Of course, you did point out that there’s a bit of a fragmentation of the internet, but as we think about the internet as really a transnational phenomenon, something that is hard to be able to isolate in any one place, especially when we’re thinking about migrants and refugees, should we be thinking of internet freedom more as a transnational issue rather than something that’s just a domestic national issue for each country?

Allie Funk

I think it’s honestly a bit of both in that it depends on what your goal is. So, one of the reasons that each country report, like you said, takes a national focus, national score is those country reports are often used by civil society, tech sector, et cetera, to understand them. So, if you’re a tech company, you’re like, ‘Hey, I would really like to operate an X country. What is the encryption environment? What am I up against? What are laws that I could be used against me?’ In that sense, it’s helpful to have that national look. Same thing if you’re a civil society actor and you’re like, ‘Okay, here’s a law that’s really problematic. I want to go advocate to a national government or to a state at an even more local level.’

So, having a broad understanding of what internet freedom in a country looks like over time. I think that’s another benefit of these reports is you can see how things change over time. Having that national level is really key. But you’re exactly right. We have to be able to connect the dots. What happens on the internet in one country doesn’t stay in that country. You can just see how the Russian government has been able to spread propaganda about its war in Ukraine around the world. They haven’t just targeted propaganda in Russia, but they’re spreading it in Latin America, in Sub-Saharan Africa and it speaks to the internet being this transnational phenomenon.

I mean, we try to look at some of this in the freedom on the net in what we call the overview essay where you can get out of the country scores and talk about global themes. But one other report that looks at this at Freedom House is on transnational repression. So how are governments, particularly the most authoritarian ones, targeting diaspora members or their dissidents who have left the country? They’re often, you know, these folks are resettling in democracies. The tech component of that is really about use of spyware against folks abroad, trying to get content taken down on Facebook, misusing reporting mechanisms, harassment. So, that report really kind of goes beyond the border question and looks at how folks might not be safe wherever they are because the internet connects people.

jmk

The transnational report that’s, I think, now in the third incarnation is just phenomenal. But it also begs the question of whether or not there are transnational institutions that are being developed. Do you see that shift, that trend happening towards the development of those types of institutions, whether it be at the UN or somewhere else?

Allie Funk

There’s been a lot of progress this year in trying to do this. Folks are understanding, particularly a lot of the democratic governments, that you can’t go at this alone. I think, candidly, democracies are really playing catch up because a lot of the authoritarian powers already figured this out. We’ve found an announcement from people in the Russian government and the Chinese government, it’s a joint announcement, where they’re calling for a more powerful ITU at the UN. So, this has been ongoing and we’re realizing, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense.’ There’s been a lot of progress toward it and again, change takes time.

But one of the bodies that has been around for a while is the Freedom Online Coalition. It’s a coalition of 34 member states who have come together explicitly to protect Internet freedom. Freedom House serves as an advisory member on it and in that forum the goal is to create avenues for diplomacy and to engage with these tough questions like disinformation or harassment or authoritarian growth such as how do we challenge this stuff and do it in a human rights way. So, the US government is going to take a chairship of the FOC. Right now, it’s the Canadian government. The US will be next year. So, our report outlines some concrete recommendations that we want to see from the US.

So, an example of one is there’s really no accountability mechanism in the FOC right now. If a member state does something that isn’t aligned with FOC principles, there’s nothing happening. So, thinking through what could that look like? Increasing the FOC’s own internal staffing so it can actually do a lot of this work and engage with other multilateral initiatives like the G7 or the Five Eyes. Some of these other initiatives don’t look at human rights specifically, but we would want them to look at human rights making more of those connections and structures in order to have these transnational, multilateral institutions that can push out internet freedom.

jmk

So, you mentioned earlier about how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected freedom on the internet in other countries. I want to dip into that a little bit more. Can you describe a little bit about how the invasion of Ukraine has affected freedom on the net in Russia, Ukraine, and maybe even other countries outside of those?

Allie Funk

Yeah, so this year the biggest decline was Russia. It had a seven-point decline and this is the lowest score Russia has ever had and all the declines were since the government’s invasion. So, the blocking of Facebook and Twitter, the forcing of independent and foreign news outlets out of the country, 15 years in prison for spreading quote unquote false information about the invasion, forcing media outlets to refer to it as a quote special military operation, all of these just really forced the score to decline and it really raises the risk for people in the country who oppose the invasion and people who wanted to protest. Facebook and Twitter are really important platforms to connect with people in Europe or around the world who are opposing the invasion or sending money to groups that might want to protest against it.

Then also what this censorship did as well is it forced users to use Russian social media platforms. We talk about this in the report, because I think the rise of, we like to call them, alternative domestic platforms is a new trend. But these platforms are either owned directly by the state or they’re owned by companies that are partly owned by a Putin ally, if you look at the ownership structure. So, that means that they are censoring more content. They might be handing more data over and then they’re just less safe for folks. So, it pushed people to use those. That was some of the Russia specific findings.

Then in neighboring Ukraine, the Russian military also drove a decline there. So, Ukraine’s internet freedom declined by three points all because of Russian forces actions. Russian attacks damaged internet infrastructure and caused internet outages. Up to over 20% of internet access was taken offline. Russian forces in newly occupied areas, particularly in Kherson, rerouted internet traffic through Russian or Crimean networks forcing folks in that area to only have access to basically the Runet, the Russian internet. At times Russian forces went to service providers at gunpoint and forced them to do that. Then the last reason was Russian forces attacked online journalists. Several died because of this. Also, they went through people’s phones and if you did certain activities, had certain apps, you could face physical violence.

So, we have to really acknowledge just the incredible resiliency of the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people and everything that they’ve done to keep internet access online. I mean the speed with which the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian ISPs were fixing this telecommunications infrastructure is astonishing. That is something that we really wanted to highlight in our report. This is incredible. Then just looking in other places, you know, some countries we tracked where Russian disinformation popped up, even popped up in the US.

One of the other big score declines is how the effects of the war spread to the EU. So, we talk about the European Commission ordering a ban on the dissemination of Russian state affiliate media outlets, RT and Sputnik. What that meant in practice is that EU states were ordered to block these two websites. So, our take is that obviously these websites promote incendiary and false content. We always look back at human rights standard as our guiding principles and these standards allow you to limit free expression during times of armed conflict. But we view this ban as overly broad. It lacked sunset provisions. So, in a lot of countries we don’t even know when it’s going to end. There’s been very little oversight, very little transparency. What we’ve heard from telecommunications companies is no one really knows even how to implement it.

So, depending on where you are in the EU, the blocks are different. It’s kind of just like a mess. Now the lack of a democratic process over these website blocks was something we were really concerned about because we’re also worried that the EU legitimized website blocks as a response to disinformation. So, thinking about what would happen with Chinese news outlets? Are those also going to be blocked? Or if Brussels is criticizing India or China for using the same justification, it’s sort of lost its legitimacy to criticize that.

jmk

So, Freedom House does a great job listing all kinds of recommendations and there are pages of recommendations at the end of the report. But oftentimes they’re very abstract. It’s maybe people should do X or they should be making this kind of improvement. Instead of a recommendation could you name a group or an individual who has made a notable defense for freedom of the net who deserves recognition? It doesn’t have to be the most outstanding. I mean, just somebody who’s been underappreciated that you’d like to be able to give some recognition to.

Allie Funk

So, when I started at Freedom House, I was hired to cover the Asia region and I did that for a few years. Now I obviously look globally and lead the project, but I still have a soft spot for the region. I think that the organizations are incredible and I also think what happens in that region is a bellwether for what’s often going to happen elsewhere. So, I want to call out civil society groups in two countries. The first is in India. India has been on a democratic backsliding trend. Freedom House has tracked it. We’ve declined it to partly free a few years ago in Freedom in the World. It’s been partly free for internet freedom for a while and things seem to be getting worse.

It’s a complicated environment because they oscillate between the good and the bad. It has some of the strongest net neutrality provisions, but then is a leader in internet shutdowns. But there are civil society groups there that are incredible at documenting all the different regulation coming out, bringing strategic litigation cases that’s creating case law in the country. So, the Internet Freedom Foundation is one. Another one I would flag as well is SFLC, the Software Freedom Law Center in India. And I just don’t know how they do it because the US is complicated. But India is such a complicated environment. The other country in the civil society groups that I would like to highlight are ones that are focused in Myanmar.

Obviously, we all had big hopes for what was going to happen for democracy there. Since the coup I follow Myanmar closely, but every time I read about it, I’m just awestruck by the level of repression and just everything that’s happening. So, the groups that are still covering Myanmar and not just freedom-wise, free expression, but just broader democracy and human rights are some of the most fearless folks that I know and sometimes I worry that mean Myanmar is falling off of the international community’s attention. So, I would definitely flag that as well.

jmk

Well, thank you so much, Allie, for joining me today. It’s always such an amazing report. Let me plug it one more time: Freedom on the Net 2022: Countering an Authoritarian Overhaul of the Internet. Like always it’s available to download for free. So, I definitely recommend everybody to go check it out. Freedom House always does a great job with their website of being able to make things accessible through its tools and the ability to move between different countries. So, definitely take advantage of that. Thank you so much for joining me today, Allie.

Allie Funk

Thank you so much for having me.

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Freedom on the Net 2022: Countering an Authoritarian Overhaul of the Internet by Adrian Shahbaz, Allie Funk, and Kian Vesteinsson

Learn more about Allie Funk

Follow Allie Funk on Twitter @alfunk

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Sarah Cook on China’s Expanding Global Media Influence

Sarah Repucci from Freedom House with an Update on Freedom in the World

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