A prominent non-profit has decreased the US’s internet freedom rating for 2018 due to the repeal of net neutrality. Freedom House, a US-based pro-democracy think tank, releases an annual report that analyzes the amount of internet freedom in countries around the world, and assigns a score to each country. While America still has a high level of internet freedom, the loss of net neutrality protections, privacy laws, and the merging of major telecom companies caused its rating to drop this year over last year.
“It is depressing but not unexpected,” Josh Tabish the Ford/MDF Technology Exchange Fellow at Fight for the Future, an internet freedom advocacy group, told me over the phone. “In terms of internet freedom, this current congress has been one of the most dangerous that the country has maybe ever seen.”
Freedom House rates each country’s internet freedom based on factors that include obstacles to access, limits to content, and violations of user rights, then uses that to assign a rating out of 100. The more of each kind of limits a country has, the higher the rating is—so a high rating is bad, it means you have a lot of things blocking internet freedom. Russia, for example, got a rating of 67 this year. China scored an 88. Both Italy and France got ratings of 25, while Iceland had an impressive 6. The United States’ internet freedom rating changed from 21 in 2017 to 22 in 2018.
At the end of last year, the Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal federal net neutrality regulations that prohibited internet service providers from doing things like blocking content or websites, or throttling traffic. That repeal went into full effect earlier this year, despite the fact that the majority of Americans of all political stripes are in favor of net neutrality. Freedom House cited this decision as one of the major factors that contributed to the US’s rating change.
“Losing net neutrality impacts internet freedom because the open web is one of most powerful tools we have to hold leaders to account,” Tabish said. “Whether you’re challenging tyranny or just saying something unpopular politically, net neutrality is essential for maintaining free speech online.”
Without net neutrality, ISPs have the ability to prioritize certain content over others, or even block it. As major telecom mergers happen, such as AT&T’s takeover of Time Warner, ISPs will have incentive to prioritize their own content that is now part of the company over competitors.
Freedom House also cited several other regulatory decisions that impacted internet freedom in the US, such as the passing of SESTA/FOSTA, a law that makes websites liable for the content their users share and put online sex workers at serious risk as many platforms started to boot them off. There was also the decision to freeze regulation of privacy guidelines for broadband providers, and a number of data breaches that all contributed to the updated rating.
America is not alone: internet freedom has been on the decline, according to Freedom House, for the last eight years in a row. Other countries had much more severe limitations on internet freedom, like laws against what can be shared online and the persecution of individuals who break these rules. Still, in a country like the United States, we’d like to see our public information infrastructure getting more open and transparent, not less, and this year’s report is a stark reminder of the direction we’re heading in.