Anri Van Der SpuyFreedom House published its annual report Freedom on the Net 2014 today, which studies and evaluates the development of internet and digital media freedom in 65 countries around the world. LSE Alum Anri van der Spuy, who contributed to the report on the United Kingdom with the LSE Media Policy Project (but was not involved in the scoring process), asks how free Freedom House’s “free” is.

Focusing on developments between May 2013 and April 2014, the fifth edition of Freedom House’s report covers quite a momentous year in the short history of the internet. Edward Snowden’s leaks in June 2013 detailed what appears to be a large-scale infringement of online rights under the indefatigable banner of national security; igniting global initiatives aimed at improving internet governance (such as the IANA transition process and the NetMundial Initiative) and encouraging better protection of online rights (such as the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, and Brazil’s Marco Civil).

In light of reports that extensive online surveillance has been common in the UK for a number of years whilst citizens (and studies like those carried out by Freedom House) remained largely ignorant, the report raises questions about “the reliability of any previous measures of users’ online freedoms in the UK”. The proportionality of UK security agency GCHQ’s surveillance practices is also questioned; as is the suitability of existing legislation for application to new forms of technologies like the internet.

But – and herein lies the cause for concern – Freedom House nevertheless scores the UK’s internet as “free”. If it is still as free as it was before Snowden’s revelations, how free was the UK’s internet to begin with?

What is freedom?

‘Free’, according to Freedom House’s methodology description, is defined in terms of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Online freedom can be limited, according to Freedom House’s methodology, by obstructing access, imposing limits to content, or restricting user rights. To rank a country’s state of internet freedom, a numerical score out of 100 is allocated in each of these three sections (with 0 being most free, and 100 least free). Over the past year, the UK’s score only deteriorated by one point (from 15 to 16) in the “violations of user rights” category, with the other categories remaining constant.

Access or use?

There is little surprise that the UK continues to boast a competitive market for internet access, with internet penetration growing by 3% in the past year to 90%. But one should remember that this growing prevalence, while laudable in limiting obstacles to internet access, does not necessarily translate into use.

Limits to content

In the past year, as the report details, the use of filtering tools in the UK has increased. In November 2013, for instance, so-called “Cameron-filters” were introduced to prevent searches for child abuse images, with particular questions raised in the report about not only notorious over-blocking, but also the outsourcing and privatizing of such filters. Despite often being deployed with good intentions, an overzealous reliance on limiting access to content through blocking or filtering practices may be detrimental to online freedoms – particularly if implemented without transparency, prior negotiation with stakeholders, or proper legal-regulatory analysis.

Violating user rights

Besides revelations about the extent of GCHQ surveillance there were numerous other incidents over the past year – including the smashing of hard drives at The Guardian’s offices – that illustrated the fine line between online and offline violations of user rights. In addition to these developments, detailed in the report, there have also been indications that internet users fail to comprehend their rights and responsibilities in the online world; leading to more prosecutions for offenses related to copyright, libel, hate speech, incitement to violence, and contempt of court.

Degrees of freedom

Providing an accurate and reliable measure of internet freedom is no doubt challenging from a conceptual perspective, with perceptions of what freedom is and ought to be differing around the world. Measuring freedom online is also a methodological quagmire, with the technological nature of the internet enabling a multitude of ways to facilitate both freedom and repression. While Freedom House’s report is useful in providing a snapshot of developments pertaining to internet freedom, the fact that the UK’s internet is once again – like the previous five years for which the report and scores have been published – described as “free”, is problematic.

One has to wonder how much incentive there is for policymakers to try bolster online freedoms if the UK’s ranking remained constant despite the year’s developments. As has been stressed so often in the context of press regulation post-Leveson, the UK is expected to set a global example, emulated worldwide, where freedom of expression is concerned. What example does it set for other countries, therefore, when the country, whose security services are revealed to be using mass online surveillance techniques, and which increasingly relies on disconnecting technologies, even if permitted by (outdated) legislation, sees its internet still recognized as “free” by a respected advocacy group like Freedom House?

If one thing, this year – and this ranking – again emphasizes the need for viewing internet freedoms within a broader ecology that encompasses (or endeavours to encompass) more of the technologies and players that truly impact freedoms online.

More information about the report and ranking, 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, nor of the London School of Economics.

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