Paul MouraFreedom House has just published its yearly Report on Freedom of the Net, which studies the development of Internet freedom in 60 countries around the world. The LSE Media Policy Project contributed to the report on the United Kingdom. LSE Alum Paul Moura argues that although the UK has been labeled as ‘free’, there are still reasons to look beyond the label.

Recent revelations about the magnitude of government web surveillance have caused some in the United Kingdom to question the extent to which they enjoy freedom on the Internet. Freedom House, an advocacy organization promoting democracy, freedom, and human rights, today released its 2013 Edition of its Report on Freedom on the Net [A1] . The Report helps to shed light on some of the complexities of user rights and restrictions, and gives a comprehensive summary of the latest developments in the UK’s governance of the Internet. The Report designates the UK’s “Internet Freedom Status” as ‘FREE’, but points to some areas where limitations on access and expression remain.

Obstacles to Access

The Report notes a high level of Internet penetration in the UK, growing to 87% in 2012. The UK features a relatively competitive market for Internet access as a result of mandated local loop unbundling. Mobile telephone penetration is also universal, with 3G connectivity available to over 99% of households. Moreover, the UK government is seeking to improve this access by ensuring “superfast” broadband in 90% of households by 2015. The government is investing heavily into its programme, but the Report notes that progress has focused primarily on major urban centres, and not in rural areas. Even where there is access, use and participation does not necessarily follow. Citing data gathered by the Consumer Communications Panel, the Report states that 22% of the UK population did not use the Internet at home in 2012. This figure is corroborated by the recently published Oxford Internet Survey, which shows the percentage carrying through into 2013. Take-up among those over 65 is lower than all other agree groups, yet “the gap has been narrowing rapidly”.

Limits on Content

The Report highlights the UK government’s “proactive” approach in limiting access to websites that have been found to violate copyright protections. The Digital Economy Act of 2010 (DEA) allows for blocking of websites containing “substantial” violations of copyrights. The Report suggests that this particular method is unlikely to gain any headway given that Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, has concluded that these blocking techniques are unlikely to be effective. The Report notes the UK’s shift to a less draconian strategy, for example, by endorsing new exemptions for parody and launching a mediation service for intellectual property disputes. Through the Defamation Act 2013, the UK government has also eased the chilling of expression accessible through ISPs by limiting their liability for user-generated content.

However, last week’s House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee Report calling for rejuvenated enforcement of the DEA and penalties of up to ten years of imprisonment, may signal an end to this trend. The UK has taken a similarly aggressive stance in addressing pornographic content. According to the Report, the government is heavily promoting filtering tools and parental controls, and is encouraging major ISPs to implement mechanisms requiring subscribers to opt out of default filtering upon starting up a new service.

Violations of User Rights

The Report details Ofcom’s announcement of its Obligations Code, which specifies how ISPs should issue warning notices to those users who are thought to be illegally accessing protected content. The Code provides for a “graduated response”, opening the door to user liability after receiving three notifications in a year.

In 2010, Paul Chambers was convicted for offensive Twitter messages expressing his frustration at the closing of a local airport and joking that he would blow it up if it did not reopen. In response to public outcry, the UK has proposed new guidelines for prosecuting cases involving communications sent using social media, essentially raising the threshold for bringing an action.

Freedom House’s Report also discusses the revelation of the UK’s surveillance project, codenamed “Tempora”. Under Tempora, communications content are stored for 3 days, while metadata are stored for 30 days. The Report indicates that the extent of the programme remains unclear, but privacy advocates criticise it for its lack of judicial oversight.

Understanding the precise nuances of efforts to regulate the Internet can be tricky, but Freedom House’s Report helps to shed light on some of the latest developments in the UK. That said, Internet governance is a constantly evolving field and recent events demonstrate that the surreptitious nature of content filtering and surveillance efforts can go undetected by advocacy groups and the general public. For that reason, accurately measuring ‘Internet freedom’ is a challenge. While the UK is “free”, Freedom House’s thorough examination shows that this year’s “free Internet” may be a bit more restrictive than last’s year’s. Focusing on those overall trends can draw attention to those areas in which user rights have been strengthened, those areas in which freedoms are limited, and importantly, those areas in which reform is most needed.

More information about the Report, including summaries of other countries, is available on the Freedom House website. This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, the London School of Economics, or any other entity. 

The Internet Governance Series will be running throughout the month of October 2013.

 [A1] UK report: pp. 768-783