Home » Blog » Human Rights » Freedom House at the George W. Bush Institute

Freedom House at the George W. Bush Institute

Freedom House, a seventy-year old organization, founded by Wendell Willkie and Eleanor Roosevelt, is now focusing on measuring freedom in online spaces. Christopher Walker and Robert Guerra are representing the organization at the George W. Bush Institute meeting on cyberdissidents, and Chris Walker begins by asking broad questions about trends in global freedom. He explains that we hoped to see a move towards increased freedom in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, we’d expected to see technical advances propelling freedom in a positive direction. And we did, for the first decade after the Cold War.

This progress has slowed in the second decade after the Cold War. And we’re forced to question our assumptions. One is that economic growth leads to greater freedom. Walker tells us that authoritarian states are increasingly part of the global trading system. They’re eager to engage commercilly, but that greater economic growth isn’t translating into greater political freedom.

We also tend to assume that globalization is leading towards greater freedom. And there’s certainly more information reaching China and Russia than in cold war days. Walker quotes Perry Link, and says, “One shouldn’t confuse diversity with liberalization or liberalism.” Because censorship can manage and guide news of political consequence, the abundance of media enabled by globalization doesn’t always equal freedom.

Finally, Walker argues, we tend to believe that the internet will equal greater freedom. But as countries embrace the internet, they often censor other media – television and radio networks in Russia are increasingly controlled by the state, which means that “the internet emerges as the principal alternative to media hegemony.” In other words, the internet might lead towards more freedom, but it might be in a climate of decreasing media freedom.

In the last few years, we’re learning enough that Walker is able to offer some new assumptions:

– Controlling everything (as a government) is neither essential nor desirable. There are so many ways for information to get into a closed society today that it’s not the goal of a government to stop information slow – the goal is to slow it down and make that flow awkward.

– Censorship can be commercialized. As Rebecca MacKinnon’s work in China makes clear, censorship is carried out by commercial actors like ISPs, not just by the “internet police”

– Authoritarianism 2.0 allows participatory repression. Here Walker references the 50 cent party, a group of pro-government voices in China who flood citizen media.

Robert Guerra joins the conversation to offer Freedom House’s state of the art on internet freedom. He prefers the term “net freedom”, which includes control over mobile phones, which he argues (correctly) are more important than the internet in most countries.

Freedom House’s work on net freedom looks at these questions:
– What techniques are used to control and censor online content?
– What are the main threats to the internet and digital media freedom?
– What are the positive trends in use of technologies?

To evaluate “freedom on the net“, Guerra tells us that Freedom House has looked at infrastructure availability, cost issues, limits to putting content online, and questions of whether content will be protected as free speech. FH surveyed 15 countries, including two in each region and a mix of developed and developing nations. They term Iran, China, Tunisia and Cuba as not free, Brazil, the UK, South Africa and Estonia as free, and the other countries in the set as partially free. One encouraging aspect is the fact that some young democracies – Estonia and South Africa – are recognizable as highly free.

In general, the internet appears to provide a more open space than the traditional media space. This difference, Guerra notes, is most notable in partially free countries. Guerra points to an array of civic activism success stories – facebook activists in Egupt, use of Twitter for political change in Moldova (an odd example, as the idea of “Twitter revolution” in Moldova has been roundly debunked), reporting of election violence in Kenya, the use of “sneakernets” in Cuba to share information. These success stories lead the press and commentators to consider internet access as a panacea. But countries are smart – they realize that they need to control this new space. And, as such, Freedom House reports some level of censorship in 11 of 15 countries and blogger arrests in 6 of 15 countries. He notes that participatory media – web 2.0 sites and SMS text messaging – are often the first services to be taken offline.

Guerra offers recommendations to support net freedom:
– We should apply values of freedom of expression and freedom of virtual association to the online world
– We should support legislation like GOFA to prevent the transfer of technology to repressive regimes
– We should consider using tools like the foreign corrupt practices act to prosecute companies when they release information to repressive regimes, as Yahoo! did with Shi Tao.
– We should monitor if situations around net freedom getting better or worse.