IGF 2021 – Day 4 – Lightning Talk #65 Freedom on the Net: The Best and Worst Practices in Internet Regulation

The following are the outputs of the captioning taken during an IGF virtual intervention. Although it is largely accurate, in some cases it may be incomplete or inaccurate due to inaudible passages or transcription errors. It is posted as an aid, but should not be treated as an authoritative record.



(Video Playing)

>> We all live in a digital world.  We all need it to be open and safe.  We all want to trust.

>> And to be trusted.

>> We all despise control.

>> And desire freedom.

>> We are all united.

>> ALLIE FUNK:  Hi, everyone.  Thank you so much for coming today and happy Friday and last day of the IGF.  Good to see some familiar faces here.  For folks I don't know, it's lovely to meet you virtually.  My name is Allie Funk.  I'm a senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House.  We are based over in the US with offices in a few spots around the world.  I run our Freedom on the Net report.  I'm joined here today by two incredible researchers who contribute to the project.  Gurkan Ozturan is the author of our Turkey report.  He recently joined the European center for press and media freedom as the media freedom rapid response coordinator.  He's worked as a journalist and advocate in Turkey.  And then Bruna Santos is the author of our Freedom on the Net Brazil report.  She's researcher at the Berlin science center and an expert on platform and interim reliability in Brazil around and the world.  We only have 30 minutes and a short conversation.  The topic of best and worst of internet regulation could go on for a very long time I'll start with a short conversation with our two panelists.  Use our remaining time for any questions that you all might have or other issues you would like us to address.

As we talk, feel free to use the chat function in Zoom to pose any direct questions.  You can do that to the whole group or to me.  I'll be monitoring that.

So before we start, I want to give a brief summary of Freedom House.  We're an independent organization founded in 1941 to expand and defend democracy around the world.  Freedom on the Net is an annual country by country assessment of internet freedom.  We started in 2009.  We measure how easily individuals can access the internet, whether that internet's censored and how rights of freedom and expression are protected online.  We examined 70 countries which is 88% or so of the world's internet population.

Back in September we released the 2021 edition which found that internet freedom unsurprisingly for folks in the room, declined for the 11th year in a row.  The main sort of theme we were looking at this year is how a growing number of governments a laissez‑faire approach in the tech center has lent to interpretation to platforms data exploitation and wide spread malfeasance.  In the absence for a shared vision governments are instead are adopting their own approaches to policing the digital sphere.  Some moves reflect these welcomed attempts mitigate harm or any manipulative market practices, many new laws impose broad censorship and data collection requirements on private sector.

Freedom House is concerned that governments are going to attempt to use the current drive for greater regulation for their own political purposes instead of curbing and decentralizing the power of tech companies.

So to put it simply, we think that high steaks battles between the state and tech sector human rights are becoming the main casualties.  Our report argues now is the time for policy makers to enable users to freely express themselves, share information across borders and hold the powerful to account otherwise these new technologies will reinforce digital oppression around the globe.

How to craft the regulations, to protect human rights and not undermine them, that's the million dollar question we'll try to answer that today.  I'm excited to have Gurkan and Bruna here.

Let's dive in.  Bruna, I'll start with.  It's one of the most comprehensive laws protecting the rights of users.  We've seen a wealth of regulatory proposals in Brazil that would undermine protections by increasing censorship and other provisions.  What are the most worrisome provisions you're following closely around the country.

>> BRUNA MARTINS DOS SANTOS:  Hi, everyone that's on the digital and also live room as well.  It's nice to be here.  Well, as you guys know, and as it's part of the Brazil reports, we have been seeing in the past year or two years, I don't know, significant change on the approach to internet regulation in the country.  Brazil became famous as you were saying the multi‑stakeholder approach that we used into the construction of the ‑‑ of an internet‑related bill that's mostly human rights centered and everything else.  In the past few years, including in the government there has been some initiatives that were concerning to us all.  To start mentioning them, there were a few years ago a presidential decree that created a centralized citizens database that was focused on data, citizens data interoperability, at the end of the day the lack of safeguards in the use of this data was something gnat Civil Society has been calling the Brazilian government on.  In 2018, 2019, something like that.

Other than that, it's pretty known to everyone as well the process that we are still going on around the misinformation bill or the fake news bill as we still call them in Brazil.  This is a bill that had a lot of things about traceability, trying to put on some provisions around if a certain message got to a certain amount of people, every single person in the chain of the message should be identified or should at least What's App should at least have records on these people.

This is also a bill that was very strong on whether or not users should be identified or not and social media companies being required to ask way more personal data from users than normal just under the possibility that one day they might commit a crime, and we need to identify them.

This whole change on how Brazil has been regulating or attempting to regulate internet mostly focused on social media, because it's a whole complete different part of the internet is something that's very concerning.

Just to finalize this first answer, two other initiatives have been very scandalous in the country in the past year as well.  So there is some tendency in regulating or allowing the use of surveillance technologies.  Our police has been using a lot of intelligence‑related tools to monitor and to control some parts of activists, journalists, and also academia as well.

This has been something that's been going on.  We are rediscussing our antiterrorism law.  That's also something that's pretty much on the table.

Last but not least, at the beginning of this year as well, they tried to introduce a provisional measure to social media companies as well.  We all know that he kind of works in very similar ways to what Trump used to do.  To him like whatever he wants to say is his freedom of expression.  So he was trying to push for the fact that content moderation in the country was a limitation to all of Brazilians' freedom of expression and tried to set this strange comprehension on how social media works and everything.

Yeah, I will stop there.

>> ALLIE FUNK:  Thanks, I think the issues you bring up around traceability and encryption and also these must carry provisions are two emerging themes around the conversation of regulation that over the past year and a half or so have really ballooned.  I'm thinking traceability and India's IT rules and the must carry laws in the US, for example, in Florida, I think are probably we're going to see more pop up.

One more follow‑up question for you, and then I'll invite Gurkan into the conversation.  I wanted to take a moment because I know there's an upcoming election in the fall.  We saw during the first run how political candidates use social media platforms to push out electoral disinformation.  I'm wondering what you expect to see in the that lead up to that vote and what I call these clashes between the President and other political figures and some of the major social media companies similar to what he have weigh seen in Turkey or India.

>> BRUNA MARTINS DOS SANTOS:  Yes.  Thanks, Allie.  I guess what I've been speaking about, like some of these regulatory initiatives we're unique on how this discussion will go.  We know that the disinformation bill we're discussing right now is a regulatory ‑‑ the parliamentary answer how President was on platforms such as What's App.  We know that this was a political response.  But we also know that the provisional measure was just talking about is his own answer to content moderation measures that have been going on.

We're also going through a huge process of reviewing our electoral code.  This is not just the biggest review in the past years, but also might be promoting the biggest alignment between our regulation in the digital space.  This discussion is also yet to be finalized.

But there are some provisions about how our data protection authority should be much better aligned with the electoral justice just so we can address and redress some of the data ‑‑ personal data misuse.

Also, there are some provisions that aim to prohibit social media from moderating content that was related to the candidate.  So I think this is going to be one of the main battle fields for the next year.  There is going to be a huge fight in between, not just the current President but all of the Brazilian politicians around social media not being able to remove their content, because they want to continue to being able to express and share whatever disinformation or false allegations they have been doing in the past.

Last but not least, Telegram is the next battlefield as well.  In the previous election, it was What's App.  It was What's App because of the encryption and the misunderstandings around how relevant encryption is for everyone.  Now that we are seeing a lot of his supporters and himself moving to Telegram and also the lack of response from the platform to law enforcement agencies, politicians, and not just politicians, but the process that is the misinformation bill is trying to introduce the possibility of blocking ‑‑ the blockage of the platform if they fail to comply with, I don't know, many orders from law enforcement or justice.  Telegram is the next battle.  Other than what I mentioned before, like the President trying to avoid falling under any content moderation possible.

>> ALLIE FUNK:  Very interesting the discussion of What's App moving into Telegram.  I didn't expect that.

Gurkan I'm interested in the Turkish environment.  Internet that you've been tracking in the freedom of net has deteriorated in recent years.  What's the government's approach to regulation in the country?  And how has it impacted human rights?

>> GURKAN OZTURAN:  Thank you, Allie.  In the last 14 years Turkey has dealt with some form of regulation that is regulating the publications that are made online.  Since it emerged back in 2007, it always had the idea of protecting the citizens against some form of criminal activities on the internet.

Originally this idea emerged out of protecting the children and gradually its scope kept expanding and expanding.  As of today it has gone through multiple amendments and revisions.  So far it only seems to be serving for the protection of the governing alliance.  The scope of censorship and blocking orders with as kept ‑‑ kept multiplying.  It was originally a handful of organizations that were authorized to block access to certain content online only after a court order.  Then this court order requirement was taken down.  Then the number of authorities ‑‑ number of institutions that could block access immediately were multiplied.

Currently, as it stands, it is dozens of different groups.

There has been a significant update in 2020, but this has taken place in absolute lack of multi‑stakeholder principle.  Originally the government claimed they would be consulting the Civil Society, experts, researchers, basically people who are capable of saying a few words in this matter.  However, we were awakened one day with a draft proposal that was sent to the relevant commission in the Parliament.  Suddenly, it passed through the Parliamentary stages and became a law.  It was so sudden it passed at 3:30 AM and passed by the President.  And before anyone could understand what it actually meant, before we could quickly read through in between the lines of the draft bill, it was already signed and approved.

The most recent amendment to the internet regulations bill in Turkey initiates supposedly protection of personal data by offering a compulsory data localization procedure for companies operating in Turkey.  And along with it, there is also introduced a new measure to monitor and regulate data in Turkey that is the content removal orders.

Basically since the law has been passed in the Parliament, immediately afterwards, news rooms in Turkey started receiving content removal orders from the government authorities.  This was a bit too quick, I guess.  But it also showed what it would be used for.  Immediately the day after we had started receiving content removal orders regarding articles published as far back as five years ago.

But this content removal process is equal to the burning down libraries in medieval time.  It impacts people's free expression right or media freedom to a greater extent as well as access to accurate, reliable information in a timely manner.

Because, upon until content removal orders were initiated, you could see quite a many of people in Turkey they would be using VPN services or this or that service to access the content in Turkey.  However with the content removal order, the very content they want access to are now being taken down.  In the meantime in this space, the government is again propagating for a new social media law.

Apparently the one that was passed last year is not enough.  This year they're claiming that they are going to protect the women online, however this is the same government only months ago, having withdrawn signature from the Istanbul protection of women and girl in social life as well as online.  The law demands of the government is not alone.  It also goes hand in hand with the fake news law and foreign funding law which is aimed at targeting free media in the country.

All of these are rumored to be in connection with the potentially upcoming early election in the country.  And we are watching also from the Freedom House's Freedom on the Net report what we have seen in Uganda and Bella reduce and we're watching with concern.

>> ALLIE FUNK:  Thank you for sharing.  You touched on a few key points.  One is how genuine online harms like child sexual abuse or child exploitation or gender‑based harassment can be used around rhetoric to go after sort of political speech and I know you also touched on data localization, which is something we at Freedom House have been thinking and talking about for some time.

Bruna, we touched on again the traceability and must carry laws.  We have about ten minutes left.  I want to leave a couple minutes for audience questions, but before we do that, Gurkan, I think if we can focus on the worst practice of internet regulation, if you had to pick two or three, what are the worst in Turkey or around the world you're most concerned about.

>> GURKAN OZTURAN:  This personal rights privacy affairs, use of personal names being used for censorship actually is concerning me, because this seems to be frequently used lately by people who belong to radical groups who are polarizing the society.  But once they do something harmful for the society and being revealed for their actions, they are pulling the card that their personal rights have been violated, that they cannot be referred to even in the news for the things they have done and for the wrongs they have done.  This, I think, is setting a very dangerous precedent.  For example, also in Malta, recently the government has initiated plans to anonymize court verdicts, the court judgments will not be publicized with the names of the criminals.  This, I think, is going to have a really bad impact on media freedom but also society's right to access information.

>> ALLIE FUNK:  I was not aware of that development in Malta.  Thank you for sharing Bruna, except opposite, what are some of the best provision ares?  What are the components that we as Civil Society group between us three can also work with the private sector and governments to make sure that we want in some of these pieces of regulation?

>> BRUNA MARTINS DOS SANTOS:  Yes.  I'm not the one to praise regulations.  They're like fly aways from country.  In Brazil in the past years there has been a lot of like academics and Civil Society activists as well we're providing the provisions ‑‑ if I can speak to the draft bill is the transparency reports part, which has been like one of the key points that (?) has been advocating for in the past years because we do need to have more access to what these platforms have been doing.  This is key to trying to address misinformation at some level.  That will be one of the things for me.

I would also like to say it's interesting to watch this change in the ethos that marked internet regulation in these past years.  A few years ago, it was almost imperative to avoid regulation or harming the internet over just making more rules.  But now, first of all, regulation is no longer a tabu, but also we want those kinds of discussions principle‑based aimed at the correct target.  And the correct target should be more content than user's behavior sometimes, which like whatever is the point it's not going to harm our rights or anything like that.

Last but not least, I do like and enjoy all of the asymmetric take that both the DSA in the EU and the misinformation draft bill is also taking on in Brazil.  With he do need to understand the differences and intricacies between the different platforms, service, and also companies online and also the take against online advertising, political or not.  This is huge.  I do think this is going to be our next top challenge for the upcoming years.  These things are making me happy.

>> ALLIE FUNK:  I think you hit the nail on the head when you think about the shift in our thinking.  Of moving away from regulation is something bad, and it can just empower the state to thinking about, oh, if we do regulation right, it can actually be better for our rights in thinking through things like transparency requirements, making sure these sort of laws acknowledge that not every company is the same and regulating them as such can have big harms and maybe cement big players in the market.  You raise some great points.

We have some questions in the chat.  Yeah, Gurkan, thank you for sharing the link.  That's helpful.  I shared The Freedom on the Net link.  How can the private sector push back against content removal orders and demands for data in contexts like these?  Which is really great.  I think we have an increasing number of government demands for personal data or remove certain types of speech.

Gurkan, I'll go to you first, I think, because this is a big issue in Turkey.  Bruna, if there's anything you want to add on Gurkan's answer.

>> I also have a comment in the room, if you don't mind.

>> ALLIE FUNK:  Yeah.  Let's go to Gurkan first and then over to you, is that the okay.

>> Yes.

>> GURKAN OZTURAN:  Sadly, it's one of the major issues in Turkey also.  Even though it is not publicly announced, unofficially, the Turkish government has been requesting personal data of hundreds of thousands of users from various platforms operating in the country claiming that they are linked to terrorism activities in the country.  However, private companies also should acknowledge that it is the users that make up most of their content despite the centralist design of their company.  If companies sell out the users and comply with the requirements of such coercive laws and provide the personal data of their users, they will risk losing their popularity that rely on these platforms to express themselves for various purposes.  However, it should be the private companies' responsibility also to think about the future of their companies and not sell their users out.

On the other hand, given that these are private companies and they do not necessarily have to guard the rights of the citizens, it is, again, falling upon the citizens' responsibility to share or not their personal data with the companies or with the regulators or the government.

>> ALLIE FUNK:  Great.  Thank you.  I think you raised some really important points there.  Bruna, if you don't have anything else to add, otherwise, let's move to the question in the room as well.

>> My I'm from Tanzania.  I work with Internet society.  I had a comment rather than a question.  And the good news is that The Freedom on the Net is the human rights, and there was ‑‑ the worst is that there are some governments that are put in stringent regulations on The Freedom on the Net.  But I think the balancing act will be to be able to promote both freedom online as well as responsibility because if you were to imagine you cross the road and you run the red light, I think you will have actually broken the regulation.

So I think we tend to think that on the internet is different from normal life we live, but actually we have to live with the freedom of expression as well as the responsibility online.  That would be key going forward.  Thank you.

>> ALLIE FUNK:  I think that's a great point of how can we think about creating certain forms of regulation so not only we're empowering free expression, but ways that we can hold individuals or companies accountable doing so in a way that's still rights respecting is a great point.

I see we have another question in the room.  Be mindful we have two more minutes.

>> I'm from Moscow University and for the record for the purposes of Russian law enforcement I don't know who organized this session.  I would like to tell that Russia has the most advanced internet regulation.  Since 2011 Russia have started protecting children, protecting children from drugs and LGBT propaganda but we don't know how effective this is.  To answer Allie's questions that what should we do?  We should measure possible impact in the countries where such regulation exists and spread the word.

Because such protections are ineffective, Russian regulations have a lot of ways by spiral extending amount of content to be blocked, amount of information to be surveilled are from the citizens, and actually the last year we have internet regulation and in addition (?) citizens.  But as The Freedom on the Net pages, I see no changes in the index of Russian confederations from 2012 ‑‑ 2021 that the zero change, while we have regulations related to fake news, related to protection, and regulation related to sovereign internet, the same only one point change in ranking 2019, twelve, I think the organization ‑‑ I don't know the name of this organization who are they who works on Freedom on the Net should be more careful in creating its own index.  Thank you very much.

>> ALLIE FUNK:  Thanks so much for your comment.  We ‑‑ we take our research very seriously and making sure that we're properly vetting all the information.  And I think as a great report online that you can read.  If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me and we can carry the conversation forward.  I'll be happy to chat further on that.  We are now out of time.  I want to thank Gurkan and Bruna for joining me in the conversation and everyone for listening in.  This has been great.  I hope everyone has a lovely end of the IGF season and a great weekend.  So thanks, everyone.

>> GURKAN OZTURAN:  Thank you so much, Allie.