On Friday we reviewed the digital rights record of the country hosting this year’s Internet Governance Forum: Turkey. But while Turkey’s abuses may be particularly blatant, our review of the 2013 Web Index findings suggests that other important governments attending the IGF deserve red cards on some key issues too.
Here’s a glance at how the US, Sweden and the UK – all of whom are sending sizable delegations to Istanbul and have ambitions to play a leading role on Internet affairs – stack up.
1. THE USA
Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the Internet remains the open forum for everybody – from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business.
Barack Obama, 2012.
Image: Pete Souza (via Wikimedia)
The US government, with 45 people attending, has the largest IGF delegation next to the host country’s and is a founder member of the Freedom Online Coalition and the Alliance for Affordable Internet. The US scored in the top 5 of our Web Index rankings for the health and social utility of the Web in both 2012 and 2013.
Freedom of expression and privacy – Red
The US has strong guarantees for freedom of expression and association, including legislation protecting Internet intermediaries from liability for user-generated content.
Privacy, however, is where the US continues to fall down, scoring only a 3 out of 10 for user protections in the 2013 Web Index. The latest Google Transparency report shows that the US requests more user data from Google than any other country and due process protections for users are limited to a secret court. However, the political tide may be turning in the US. After White House pressure watered down a bill to reduce the domestic surveillance powers of the National Security Agency (NSA), the Senate developed a stronger version and this comes up for a vote soon. The proposed law could be a pivotal first step towards real reform. However, it leaves much work to be done. The bill still will not increase privacy protection for people living outside the US; fails to challenge the fundamental secrecy surrounding the NSA’s data collection and the court that authorises it; and will not stop bulk data collection authorised under other laws or regulations such as Executive Order 12333.
EFF has documented cases where the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998) has been used against consumers, scientists, and legitimate competitors rather than pirates, and argues that this is stifling free expression and scientific research. The US is the source of the second most court orders (after Brazil) for content removal received by Google, mostly for copyright infringement. The US is a leading champion of more rigid digital copyright provisions in the secretive Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations.
Although US companies have been implicated in the export of surveillance technology used for the suppression of dissent in countries such as Syria and Tunisia, the US government has opposed solutions that go beyond voluntary self-regulation by industry.
Net Neutrality – Amber
Net neutrality regulations, up until now a key driver for innovation and a major factor helping to explain why the US scores highest in the world on the Web Index for the use and impact of the Web, could be gutted after the Federal Communications Commission voted in May to propose new rules that, according to Free Press, “may let internet service providers charge content companies for priority treatment, relegating other content to a slower tier of service”. A comment period on the FCC’s proposed changes is currently open.
Access – Amber
Considering its wealth, the US has a mediocre record on expanding access at home. Broadband is slow and expensive compared to many other OECD countries ,thanks to a market structure that has been characterised as “essentially duopolistic”, offering most consumers a choice between one cable-based provider and one telecommunications-based provider. Connectivity levels remain well below those of leading European nations, particularly among the inner-city poor as well as in rural communities. The US ranked 12th in the 2013 Web Index ‘Universal Access’ category, behind countries such as Korea, Singapore, Germany and New Zealand.
Closing the digital divide – Amber
USAID’s Mobile Innovations Lab has been a leader in building ICT innovation into its aid programmes, but the total US contribution to aid for developing countries, including aid for education, science and technology, was only 0.19% of GNI in 2013, well below many other developed nations, and less than a third of the other countries we compare in this post.
-Carl Bildt, Minister for Foreign Affairs (Sweden), 2014
Image: Carl Bildt at 50th Munich Security Conference 2014 (Mark Muller)
Sweden has topped the Web Index two years in a row thanks to its strong record on ensuring universal access and using the open Web to drive social, political and economic inclusion. One of the champions of the landmark UN resolution calling for people to have the same rights online as they do offline, Sweden is also a founding member of the Freedom Online Coalition and a member of the Alliance for Affordable Internet. The nation’s foreign minister Carl Bildt chairs the Global Commission on Internet Governance.
Freedom of Expression and Privacy – Red
Sweden has strong guarantees for freedom of expression and information but received only a mediocre score (5 out of 10) in the 2013 Web Index on the strength of both substantive and procedural safeguards to protect the privacy of electronic communications.
The FRA Act 2008 gives the FRA the right to warrantlessly wiretap all data and telephone traffic crossing Sweden’s borders, based on search terms approved by a special Defence Intelligence Court. Privacy experts believe the oversight of this process is not as robust as it could be, and parliamentary accountability is lacking. The broad scope of the FRA law itself is also worrying, creating loopholes that many surveillance experts believe are leading to spying on Swedish citizens. Finally, leaked material apparently showing Sweden’s extensive cooperation with the UK and US intelligence agencies gives rise to concern about the possible use of XKeyScore to bypass legal restrictions on domestic surveillance.
Carl Bildt’s public support for the 13 Principles for the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance gives reason to hope that the government will take steps to review and reform its surveillance practices in future.
As in the US and the UK, Swedish companies have also been alleged to have supplied surveillance technologies to regimes with questionable human rights records and there is currently a lack of substantive regulation of such exports.
Net Neutrality – Green
In 2010/11, Sweden’s telecommunications regulator decided to approach net neutrality as a “queuing problem”, tackled by introducing a set of reforms to ease rival operators’ access to passive infrastructure and spectrum, end consumer lock-ins and improve transparency. If operators do attempt to block certain services or types of content, the regulator has the mandate to put a stop to this. In future Sweden will have to implement the provisions of the net neutrality legislation passed by the European Parliament this April.
Access – Green
Sweden’s pathbreaking Information Society for All law (2000) established that broadband service should be considered a utility and every citizen should have access to it. The government obliged state-owned companies to build high-speed backbone infrastructure and provided tax incentives to boost broadband demand. In 2009, a plan was put in place to enable all households and businesses to access public services by broadband. As a result Sweden now enjoys some of the highest connectivity levels in the world. The country ranked third on the 2013 Web Index ‘Universal Access’ sub-index.
Closing the Digital Divide – Green
Sweden, along with Norway, is one of the only rich countries that regularly surpasses the UN target of 0.7% of GNI to be devoted to development assistance. SIDA has been a leader in incorporating ICTs for Development (ICT4D) into its aid portfolio.
3. United Kingdom
“Efforts to suppress the internet are wrong and are bound to fail over time. …. If we go down that path, we begin to erode the hard-won rights of freedom of expression. We will always argue that it is necessary to err on the side of freedom.”
– William Hague, speaking 2012 as UK Foreign Secretary
Image: William Hague (Source: US State Department)
The UK will be sending a delegation of nine to the IGF, consistent with its often-expressed ambitions to turn Britain into a global powerhouse of the digital economy. The UK is a founder member of the Alliance for Affordable Internet and a member of the Freedom Online Coalition. It ranked third in both the 2012 and 2013 Web Index report.
Freedom of expression and privacy – Red
In theory, UK citizens enjoy strong protection of freedom of expression and association online, and Britain has been a world leader on the proactive release of government data online. However, the Snowden revelations have exposed an opaque system for routine bulk data collection with minimal oversight or accountability, which earned the UK 0 out of 10 for privacy protection in the 2013 Web Index. There seems to be little appetite for change from the present government. Despite statements from Government that it respects its citizens’ privacy online and that a warrant is required to access private communications, a legal challenge brought by Privacy International and others has shown that the UK has a very loose definition of what constitutes a private communication. As a result, the country may be bulk collecting communications from Facebook, Gmail, Yahoo and other popular Web services. The Google Transparency Report shows that the UK is the country that makes the fifth most requests for user data.
In addition, the government took a significant retrograde step in July 2014 when it rushed through the ‘emergency’ Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Bill. This Bill requires providers of ICT services to collect data on their users and hand them over to the government on demand – despite the fact that the European Court of Justice has declared this bulk data collection illegal. Concerns have also been raised that the Bill expands the territorial reach of the UK intelligence services. The Bill was hurried through in July with little time for parliamentary debate or discussion – despite the fact that the ‘emergency’ to which it responded was a European Court of Justice ruling from April. The Open Rights Group has vowed to challenge the Bill in court.
The government is promoting filters to prevent children and young people from seeing allegedly harmful content, which includes not only pornography, but also sites that talk about alcohol, smoking, anorexia and hate speech. “In practice,” says Open Rights Group, “filters block many sites that are not harmful to children” – a full 20% of all UK websites, according to ORG’s research.
In addition, UK companies have been found to be exporting surveillance technology to countries that use such technology to abuse human rights. The Anglo/German company Gamma, which supplies FinFisher software, is frequently cited in reports. Like Sweden and the US, the UK’s export control regime does little to regulate such exports.
Net Neutrality – Amber
Although minister for culture, communications and creative industries Ed Vaizey has equivocated on net neutrality since taking office in 2010, the UK will have to comply with the proposed new net neutrality law passed by the European Parliament in April – unless, that is, the government makes good on its threat to veto the legislation.
Access – Green
Britain fares relatively well on access, although it lags top-performing countries such as Norway and Iceland. According to the ITU, 90% of Britons are using the Internet, and a fixed connection costs just 0.7% of monthly income for the average citizen – ranking the country 7th in the world on both the ITU cost table, and the 2013 Web Index Universal Access table. The government has also unveiled plans to speed up the penetration of broadband in rural areas, and starting this year coding skills are to be taught in all primary schools.
Closing the digital divide – Green
In 2014, Britain finally met its pledge to spend 0.7% of GNI on development assistance. Although DFID has lagged other donor countries in integrating ICTs into its development strategy, it formed a panel in late 2013 to advise it on how to do so.
Good Internet governance starts at home. But as our scan shows, there is a sizeable gap between the speeches being made in Istanbul’s shiny international convention centre, and action being taken in national capitals – particularly when it comes to tackling mass surveillance. Such disparities between rhetoric and reality create vacuums in which mistrust and political posturing flourishes, and will ultimately make it impossible to achieve an effective global system of Internet governance. When leaders return from Istanbul, all of them – and especially those aspiring to shape the future of the global Internet – need to initiate a democratic process to create a national digital bill of rights in their country that will guarantee users’ rights to free expression, privacy, innovation and universal access.
In our next post, we’ll take a look at some of developing and emerging nations who are leading actors on the IGF stage: Brazil, Russia and Nigeria.