ITIF Urges State Department to Defund Flawed Internet Freedom Report Unless It Corrects Methodology

June 8, 2020

WASHINGTON—The advocacy group Freedom House fails to differentiate legitimate regulation from political repression in its widely noticed annual study of Internet freedom around the word, according to a new analysis released today by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the leading think tank for science and technology policy. ITIF concludes that the group’s Freedom on the Net report instead channels a strict libertarian ideology which holds that the Internet should be off limits for nearly all government oversight, except when it comes to regulating.

Given this polemical rather than analytical framework, ITIF urges the U.S. State Department to stop funding the Freedom House report unless it adjusts its methodology to focus on true violations of Internet freedom.

“There is clearly a need for a report that regularly assesses Internet censorship and other violations of democratic, rule-of-law principles, but in its current form the Freedom House report is not it,” said ITIF President Robert D. Atkinson, who co-authored the new analysis. “It is troubling that the State Department funds the project in its current form. The Freedom on the Net report serves as a comprehensive summary of everything that one point of view considers to be bad for Internet freedom rather than a dispassionate analysis of core Internet freedom violations—which to be clear, are a problem in many nations, particularly in China and the Middle East.”

Freedom House uses a 21-question methodology, analyzing nations’ obstacles to Internet access, limits on online content, and restrictions on Internet users. The report concedes that governments can legitimately restrict access to some information and forms of freedom of expression, yet penalizes not just authoritarian regimes like China for actions that are widely agreed to be violations of Internet freedom, but also Western democracies for regulating well within the rule of law.

This ideological framework that fails to differentiate between legitimate freedom and free license explains why the report ranks the United States 7th out of 65 nations, and why its score has declined for three years in a row. In addition to its ideological bias, the report’s methodology is opaque and conflates past infringements with current practices.

“Freedom House’s report represents a mix of the views of Bay Area Internet libertarians, circa 1993, and Internet progressives today,” said Atkinson. “If the State Department is to continue supporting this work, it should ensure the report is focused on true violations of Internet freedom, such as governments blocking websites based on political factors and prosecuting people for exercising free speech online, not reasonable rules governing online behavior, such as limiting Internet piracy or tracking terrorists.”

Read the report.