Sending a strong signal on global internet freedom

Editor's note:

On Wednesday, June 14 at 2:00pm, the Brookings Institution will host an event titled “What’s next for global internet freedom under the Trump administration?” Register to attend the event in person here.

Among the range of complex foreign policy issues yet to be addressed by the Trump administration is a serious concern for global internet freedom. The growing restrictions on internet freedom around the world are easy to document; less so any visible American strategy that would reverse the ominous trends at hand.

Let’s review the dimensions of the problem in brief. The latest data from the respected nonprofit organization, Freedom House, provides a contextual understanding, based on tracking global internet freedom in 65 countries, comprising 88 percent of internet users worldwide.

According to its most recent annual report in this area, Freedom on the Net 2016, two-thirds of the world’s internet users live under government censorship. Internet freedom around the world declined in 2016 for the sixth consecutive year.

The types of blocked content include political communication aimed at promoting democratic values, such as online petitions and calls for public protests. Even satire can be punished severely: a 22-year old in Egypt was imprisoned for three years after photoshopping Mickey Mouse ears on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Unfortunately, this type of criminal penalty is hardly unique.

Overall, Freedom House deemed only 17 surveyed countries to have real internet freedom; 28 were partly free and 20 were characterized as not free. The leading bad state actors should not be surprising: China, Syria, Iran, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan and Cuba (North Korea was not included in the survey, alas).

The Obama administration had mixed success promoting global internet freedom. It provided modest funding through a $45 million grant program, with most of these funds given to provide technology for bloggers and dissidents in select restricted countries. But the same tools that protect freedom of expression online can also hide drug traffickers and child pornographers. And the damaging leaks of highly classified NSA data by Edward Snowden hurt the U.S. as it advocated for greater internet freedom, since the notion of centralized government surveillance undercut the message that our nation intended to convey.

In spite of these setbacks, there was a recognition at the highest levels of government that restricting global internet freedom was a growing problem. Less freedom would have enormous potential consequences for dealing with authoritarian regimes and diminish promising communication and ecommerce capabilities of an open global internet.

As technology expands these possibilities, many governments have placed greater restrictions on innovative new digital services. Freedom House has documented arrests for “misuse” of Facebook in 27 countries, of YouTube in 11 countries and of Twitter in 9 countries. These are sobering numbers that the Trump administration will have difficulty ignoring, if only because internet freedom can affect both national security interests and trade imbalance concerns. The U.S. would be hurt if the marketplace of ideas and the online commercial marketplace that thrive here are diminished overseas.

However, there has been radio silence to date about this issue from the White House and the Department of State. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should provide both symbolism and substance for a new U.S. global internet freedom agenda in a high-profile address that echoes the words of his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, in a January 2010 speech at the Newseum–“This is a very important speech on a very important subject.”

This phrase alone would send a strong diplomatic signal to the international community that the United States still considers internet freedom to be a critical area of foreign policy engagement. Equally important, it would mark the start of an updated internet freedom agenda based on success metrics and aimed at reversing the all-too-apparent downward spiral of repression.