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10 Things You Need to Know About U.S. Support for Free Internet

29 May 2014
Boy using tablet (AP Images)

A student uses a tablet in his school.

This blog post by Scott Busby originally appeared on the State Department website on May 29. Busby serves as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

10 Things You Need to Know About U.S. Support for Internet Freedom
by Scott Busby

By 2016 there will be 3 billion Internet users globally – almost half the world’s population. If the Internet were a country, it would be the largest in the world. If it were a national economy, it would rank among the world’s top five. Here are 10 things you need to know about U.S. support for Internet freedom.

1. Internet freedom has been a long-standing foreign policy priority for the United States. Our goal is to promote the same protections for exercise of human rights online as offline.

2. We have also advocated for a global Internet as an open platform on which to innovate, learn, organize, and communicate, free from undue interference or censorship, and for greater access to the Internet. As President Obama has said, “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 who want to start a business.”

3. Unfortunately, global Internet freedom has declined over the past three years, according to watchdog group Freedom House. Today, over half the world’s population live in countries that restrict Internet freedom (see country rankings on Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom on the Net Report). In the face of this trend, the United States is working to fulfill President Obama’s commitment to “support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard – whether it’s a big news organization or a blogger.”

4. The global number of censored websites has increased over the past three years. China and Iran currently block thousands of websites, including news outlets and social media. Turkey also has a history of Internet censorship, preventing access to Twitter and YouTube in early 2014. Secretary Kerry highlighted the importance of engaging on this issue in his remarks to Freedom Online conference last month. He said “when we stand up for freedom of expression anywhere and everywhere that it’s threatened, including with our friends and our allies, that makes all the difference in the world. That’s why we called on Turkey to unblock its citizens’ access to Twitter and remove other barriers to free expression on the internet.”

5. According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 Netizens Imprisoned Report, there are currently 168 bloggers and netizens behind bars around the world. According to Reporters without Borders, China imprisons more bloggers than any other country in the world. In Vietnam, several bloggers in 2013 were sentenced to up to 13 years in prison for posting information online. In Ethiopia, a student was arrested in 2013 for posting a comment on his Facebook page.

6. According to Freedom Houses’ 2013 Freedom on the Net Report, over the last year, 25 countries have passed new laws or regulations that threaten freedom of expression online. The Russian government recently used a federal Internet blacklist to block four major opposition websites, and recently passed a law requiring bloggers and social media users with more than 3,000 daily visitors to be subjected to regulation as “mass media outlets.” Vietnam passed legislation that prohibits the quoting, gathering or summarizing of news or information from press organizations on blogs or social media. At last month’s Freedom Online conference, Secretary Kerry stated, “…we believe in giving people a voice from the bottom up. The authoritarian vision sees a free, open, inclusive internet as a threat to state power.… They use their power to threaten the internet, and it’s about controlling information and access to it from the top down.”

7. The United States was a founding member of the Freedom Online Coalition, a partnership of 23 governments working to advance Internet freedom globally. Coalition members work closely together to coordinate their diplomatic efforts and engage with civil society and the private sector to support Internet freedom – freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly online – worldwide. The most-recent Freedom Online conference was in Tallinn last month, and the next Freedom Online conference will be held in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in 2015. Here’s a DipNote post about U.S. participation in the conference in Tallinn.

8. Over the past five years, the United States has invested over $125 million to support innovative Internet freedom programs globally. These programs work to support counter-censorship and secure communications technology, digital safety training, policy advocacy and cutting-edge research efforts. The United States also contributes to the Digital Defenders Partnership, which provides urgent assistance to human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers and activist organizations experiencing digital emergencies around the world. See its website and factsheet for more information on how to apply for a grant or get help during an emergency.

9. At the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (known as NETmundial) in Sao Paolo, Brazil this April, many sectors of society from six continents came together to discuss and debate a path forward for international Internet governance. The U.S. government supported a joint commitment to preserving, promoting, and expanding the benefits of a single, interoperable, open, and global Internet for all of the world’s people. We worked together to outline principles for Internet governance based on human rights and shared values. Read more about our NETmundial participation here.

10. Despite challenges, advocates around the world continue to generate positive momentum for Internet freedom. Over the last year, civic mobilization and pressure by activists, lawyers, the business sector, reform-minded politicians, and the Internet community deterred the passage or implementation of negative laws in 11 different countries. This year, the Freedom Online Coalition also unanimously adopted a set of multistakeholder “Recommendations for Freedom Online” to reaffirm its commitment to respect and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms online.