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

Friday, 10th December, 2021 (14:35 UTC) - Friday, 10th December, 2021 (15:05 UTC)
Hall A3

Freedom House


In addition to Allie, Bruna Martins dos Santos from Data Privacy Brasil and Gürkan Özturan from the Media Research Association in Turkey will be speaking on this panel.

Onsite Moderator

Freedom House

Online Moderator

Freedom House


The session will start with a 5-minute presentation from Freedom House that will set the context for internet regulation frameworks around the world and introduce the major findings of the Freedom on the Net 2021 report. Freedom House will then host three Freedom on the Net panelists who are experts on the nuances of regulatory efforts in India, Turkey, and Brazil. Each will provide a 5-minute presentation on a key regulation in their respective country. The remaining 5 to 10 minutes will be reserved for question and answer from the audience.

Duration (minutes)



Internet freedom has been in decline for over a decade, according to Freedom on the Net, Freedom House's annual survey of human rights online in 70 countries. The rise of AI surveillance, proliferation of life-threatening disinformation, and normalization of draconian censorship have all blunted the internet’s effectiveness as a tool for human rights. Meanwhile, a growing number of governments are asserting their authority over tech firms. While some moves reflect legitimate attempts to mitigate online harms, rein in misuse of data, or end manipulative market practices, many new laws impose excessively broad censorship and data-collection requirements on the private sector. These trends are contributing to a broader crisis for democracy worldwide.

If the internet is to advance the cause of human rights in the 21st century, an inclusive partnership of civil society, governments, and the private sector must work together to build robust governance structures that enshrine and enforce rights protections. This means envisioning new systems of internet governance and regulation that uphold democratic principles of popular representation and participation.

This session will directly address two IGF 2021 emerging and cross-cutting issue areas: 1) Emerging regulation: market structure, content, data and consumer/users rights regulation, as well as 2) Inclusive internet governance ecosystem and digital cooperation. By incorporating presenters who are experts on regulation efforts in the Brazil and Turkey specifically, presentations will untangle these laws’ best and worst provisions for internet freedom.

• Key background reading and papers include: Freedom on the Net 2021 (to be published in late September 2021 at https://freedomonthenet.org), Freedom on the Net 2020 (https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2020/pandemics-digital-shadow), and User Privacy or Cyber Sovereignty? (https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-report/2020/user-privacy-or-cyber-sovereignty). • IGF 2021 emerging and cross-cutting issue areas: Emerging regulation: market structure, content, data and consumer/users rights regulation, as well as Inclusive internet governance ecosystem and digital cooperation • Policy questions addressed: o Digital sovereignty: What is meant by digital sovereignty? What implications does it have for the global nature of the Internet, for Internet governance itself, and the effectiveness of the multistakeholder approach? From an opposite angle, what are the implications of the Internet and digitalisation for national sovereignty? o Regulation, competition and innovation: How could regulatory and self-regulatory frameworks help foster more competitive Internet-related markets, a larger diversity of business models, and more innovation? How to enable equitable access to data, marketplaces or infrastructures for fostering competition and innovation on the Internet? o Content moderation and human rights compliance: How to ensure that government regulation, self-regulation and co-regulation approaches to content moderation are compliant with human rights frameworks, are transparent and accountable, and enable a safe, united and inclusive Internet? o Data governance and trust, globally and locally: What is needed to ensure that existing and future national and international data governance frameworks are effective in mandating the responsible and trustworthy use of data, with respect for privacy and other human rights?

During the session, Freedom House will encourage participants to submit questions directly to presenters. Particularly, participants will be requested to use the virtual live chat function to ask questions and provide comments, or ask questions directly in person. Freedom House and the session panelists will monitor the live chat, incorporating participant contributions at the end of their presentation or answering them directly in the chat.

Key Takeaways (* deadline 2 hours after session)

Panelists agreed that narrow regulation can protect human rights online, a shift in thinking in recent years. Laws should be drafted in a multistakeholder & democratic fashion, & prioritize transparency, democratic oversight, & freedoms like privacy & free expression. Otherwise, regulation could increase state censorship & surveillance. More discussion should focus on how to hold actors accountable for their actions in a rights-respecting manner.

Call to Action (* deadline 2 hours after session)

Democratic policymakers should ensure that civil society and industry are thoroughly involved in the drafting, passing, and implementation of any new internet regulation. Specifically, civil society from the Global South should be robustly involved. A multistakeholder approach is key to ensuring new regulation properly tackles online harms while protecting human rights.

Session Report (* deadline 26 October) - click on the ? symbol for instructions

The Session “Freedom on the Net: The Best and Worst Practices in Internet Regulation” was effective at exploring the current state of regulatory behavior around the world, with a focus on Brazil and Turkey. Freedom House’s Allie Funk moderated the conversation, with Gurkan Ozturan and Bruna Martins dos Santos participating as panelists. Gurkan is the author of the Freedom on the Net (FOTN) Turkey report. He recently joined the European Center for Press and Media Freedom as the Media Freedom Rapid Response Coordinator and has worked as a journalist and advocate in Turkey. Bruna is the author of the FOTN Brazil Report. She is a visiting researcher at the Berlin Social Science Center and is an expert on platform regulation and intermediary liability, particularly in Brazil. Approximately 20-25 attendees joined the session, and the panel received questions from audience members based in New York, Russia, and Tanzania.

Allie began the session by summarizing the key findings from the FOTN 2021 edition, which was released in September 2021. Specifically, she highlighted how a growing number of governments are asserting their authority over the private sector. A laissez-faire approach to the tech industry created opportunities for authoritarian manipulation, data exploitation, and widespread malfeasance, and in the absence of a shared global vision for a free and open internet, governments are adopting their own approaches to policing the digital sphere. While some moves reflect legitimate attempts to mitigate online harms, rein in misuse of data, or end manipulative market practices, many new laws impose excessively broad censorship and data-collection requirements on the private sector. Allie concluded her introduction remarks by ringing the alarm that governments are attempting to use the current drive for greater regulation for their own political purposes, instead of curbing and decentralizing the power of tech companies. Due to this, democratic governments should work with civil society and industry to craft regulations that enable users to express themselves freely, share information across borders, and hold the powerful to account. But exactly how to craft those regulations so that they protect human rights and not undermine them is a key challenge of the digital age.

Allie then asked Bruna to introduce some of the most worrisome laws coming out of Brazil. Bruna discussed how there has been a significant change in approach to regulation in the country. While the country is famous for Marco Civil and historically taking a multistakeholder approach to internet policy, President Bolsonaro has pursued problematic decrees that undermine encryption, outsource censorship to companies, and increase surveillance. Bruna also discussed what to expect ahead of the elections in the fall of 2022, and is particularly following how problematic or dangerous speech across Telegram, particularly by political candidates or state officials themselves, will undermine electoral integrity.

Next, Gurkan discussed the Turkish environment, highlighting how government officials use restrictive laws regulating social media to censor political, social, and religious speech. Specifically, the state has exploited the language of child protection and gender-based harassment as justification to quickly pass and implement repressive policies. Gurkan also noted how some of the “worst” provisions on internet regulation include data localization components, the bypassing of the judiciary for content removal, and the anonymization of court verdicts that makes their outcomes non-transparency and means civil society and other advocates cannot effectively challenge them. Bruna concluded the Q&A section of the session by identifying the “best” components of tech regulation. These include transparency requirements on tech companies and provisions that tailor obligations based on companies’ type and size.

Following this discussion, Allie opened up the floor for a question and answer. A participant based in New York asked how the private sector can resist broad content removal orders or demands for data in repressive countries. Gurkan answered that companies have a responsibility to not share users’ data and not comply with coercive laws. A representative from Tanzania raised the need for a balancing act between online freedom and responsibility, so that bad actors can be held effectively accountable for their actions online. Allie responding with the need to think more critically about how to empower free expression but still find avenues for accountability that doesn’t simply lead to more criminalization, censorship, or surveillance. Finally, an attendee from Russia criticized Freedom House’s FOTN report, arguing that the organization’s analysis of the internet freedom environment is inaccurate and problematic. Allie responded by communicating Freedom House’s rigorous research process that ensures country reports and key findings are accurate and effectively communicated.

Beyond the engagement discussed in this report, Allie did not identify additional direct feedback about the session, including via the IGF hashtags online.