Policy Recommendations: Internet Freedom
The future of privacy, free expression, and democratic governance rests on the decisions we make today. Explore Freedom House's 2019 detailed recommendations for action below.
Improve transparency and oversight of online political advertisements. In the United States, the Honest Ads Act (S.1356/H.R.2592) would modernize existing law by applying disclosure requirements to campaign advertising and requiring large digital platforms to maintain a public file of all electioneering communications that includes a copy of each ad, when it was published, its target audience, the number of views generated, and the contact information of the purchaser. The Honest Ads Act would also require platforms that distribute political ads to make “reasonable efforts” to ensure that they are not being purchased by foreign actors, directly or indirectly.
Address the use of bots in social media manipulation. In the United States, the Bot Disclosure and Accountability Act (S.2125) would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to require the conspicuous and public disclosure of bots intended to replicate human activity. The legislation would also prohibit candidates, campaigns, and political organizations from using such bots, particularly to disguise political advertising or otherwise deceive voters by giving false impressions of support from actual users.
Protect elections from cyberattacks with paper ballots and election audits. According to the recommendations of the bipartisan report on Russian interference in the 2016 election released by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, paper ballots ensure votes have a verifiable paper trail, while risk-limiting audits help ensure the accuracy of results. In the United States, the Protecting American Votes and Election Act (S.1472/H.R.2754) would mandate the use of paper ballots and audits in federal elections, and provide funding for states to purchase new ballot-scanning machines.
For the Private Sector
Develop rapid response teams to address cybersecurity and disinformation incidents around elections. Ahead of significant elections and referendums in countries around the world, social media companies and other content providers should create specialized teams that anticipate digital interference, and devise strategies to prevent interference tactics and mitigate their effects. When designing and implementing new tools to address cybersecurity and disinformation, companies should communicate openly about what new policies they may be putting in place ahead of elections, and engage with local civil society organizations that can provide expertise on the political and cultural contexts in which companies work.
Ensure political advertisements are transparent and adhere to strict content standards. Companies should rigorously vet political advertisements before they are posted on their platforms to ensure legitimate association with domestic actors and compliance with applicable electoral laws. Companies should also clearly identify who has purchased each advertisement.
Improve information sharing among social media companies and between public and private sectors. As recommended by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in its bipartisan report on Russia’s use of social media to interfere in the 2016 US election, social media companies should improve and formalize mechanisms that allow them to share information about malicious activity and potential vulnerabilities on their platforms amongst themselves and with governments. This will allow faster and more effective responses to foreign disinformation campaigns and other forms of interference, which often span multiple platforms. Social media users should be notified when they may have been exposed to such foreign activity, and be given information necessary to understand the malicious nature of the content.
For Civil Society
Conduct early-warning analysis on election interference tactics likely to occur in a country, and mobilize advocacy campaigns to prevent negative impacts. Civil society organizations (CSOs) should educate voters about how to spot political disinformation and flag misleading content on social media, particularly on private messaging platforms. Advocacy efforts should place public pressure on governments and telecommunications providers to refrain from blocking online content or restricting network connectivity. CSOs should also engage with election commissions to flag potential interference tactics and develop strategies to mitigate other harms to the electoral process.
Preventing Abusive Social Media Surveillance
Strictly regulate the use of social media surveillance tools and the collection of social media information by government agencies and law enforcement. To maintain democratic standards, any social media surveillance program employed by government or law enforcement must occur under stringent oversight and operate with transparency, including through sustained dialogue with local communities. Social media surveillance should not be used to proactively monitor peaceful protests or individuals’ involvement in nonviolent political groups. Government agencies should not conduct blanket collection of social media data as part of immigration or visa evaluations. Given the technical limitations and known inaccuracy rates of such technology, relevant oversight agencies should conduct human rights audits of the tools themselves and their use, and release their results to the public. They should further be empowered to impose penalties, and require that those harmed be granted remedy.
Enact robust data privacy legislation. In the United States, policymakers should pass a federal electronic privacy law that provides robust data protections and harmonizes rules among the 50 states. Individuals should have control over their information and the right to access it, delete it, and transfer it to the providers of their choosing. Companies should be required to disclose in nontechnical language how they use customer data, details of third parties that have access to the data, and how third parties use the data. Companies should also notify customers in a timely fashion if their data is compromised. Governments should have the ability to access personal data only in limited circumstances as prescribed by law and subject to judicial authorization, and only within a specific time frame. Given the technical measures—including cyber attacks—that both foreign and domestic actors use to access citizens’ personal information, data privacy legislation should also be paired with cybersecurity requirements on the collection and amassing of user data.
Restrict the export of sophisticated monitoring tools. Although established democracies also abuse social media surveillance technologies, authoritarian governments are more likely to do so. The United States is currently undergoing an interagency rulemaking process to determine which emerging dual-use technologies (those used by both civilians and militaries) should be subject to export controls. Any final rule issued by the US government should ensure that technologies enabling monitoring, surveillance, and the interception or collection of information and communications—including ones that use machine learning, natural language processing, and deep learning—are included on the Commerce Control List and their sale restricted from countries rated Partly Free or Not Free by any Freedom House publication. Further, democratic policymakers should restrict programs that train government authorities in Partly Free or Not Free countries on how to use social media surveillance tools.
Require businesses exporting dual-use technologies to report annually on the impacts of their exports. Reports should include a list of countries to which they have exported such technologies, potential human rights concerns in each of those countries, a summary of pre-export due diligence undertaken by businesses to ensure their products are not misused, any human rights violations that have occurred as a result of the use or potential use of their technologies, and any efforts undertaken to mitigate the harm done and prevent future abuses. Further, any official government export guidance should urge businesses to exercise caution and adhere to international principles on business and human rights when exporting dual-use technologies to countries rated Partly Free or Not Free by Freedom House.
For the Private Sector
Limit the ability of government authorities and law enforcement to conduct blanket social media surveillance. To the extent possible, social media companies should proactively assess and publicly disclose the different actors that can access their data through APIs (application programming interfaces) and large databases of semipublic data. Greater transparency around social media surveillance practices can help inform improved oversight and accountability mechanisms that can prevent instances where social media data is used to violate fundamental rights. Companies should also disclose and conduct due diligence on any existing and future partnerships with third parties to ensure they are not providing user information to companies that sell the data to governments of countries rated Partly Free or Not Free by Freedom House.
Grant users control over their information and ensure that it is not being misused. Individuals should have the ability to see what personal data companies are collecting about them and how the data is used, as well as the ability to easily turn off data collection and tracking features. Companies also need to ensure that user data is not being used or shared in ways that customers have not explicitly authorized.
Train technologists and engineers on the human rights implications of the products they are building and on international best practices for preventing their abuse. It is imperative that those building new technologies understand the ways in which the technologies can be abused or manipulated. As part of this effort, companies should conduct periodic assessments to fully understand how their products and actions might affect rights like freedom of expression or privacy. Upon completion of these assessments, companies should develop actionable plans to remedy any evident or potential harm.
For Civil Society
Work with scholars, human rights lawyers, and other stakeholders to investigate the use of social media surveillance tools and their impact on targeted communities, particularly marginalized groups. These efforts should aim to shed light on obscure social media surveillance practices and inform advocacy and litigation on increasing transparency, oversight, and accountability.
Protecting Internet Freedom
Ensure that all internet-related laws and practices adhere to international human rights law and standards. National governments should establish periodic reviews to assess whether their laws and practices regarding internet freedom conform to the principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Any undue restrictions on internet freedom—including the blocking of political websites, internet shutdowns, arrests for nonviolent speech, or extralegal surveillance—should cease immediately.
Preserve broad protections against intermediary liability and focus new regulations on conduct, not content. Companies should continue to benefit from safe harbor protections for most user-generated and third-party content appearing on their platforms, a principle that has allowed for a historic blossoming in artistic expression, economic activity, and social campaigning. Policies designed to enforce political neutrality would negatively impact “Good Samaritan” rules that enable companies to moderate harmful content without fear of unfair legal consequences and, conversely, would open the door for government interference. In line with the Manila Principles, governments should work together with technical, legal, and human rights experts to establish meaningful oversight measures for technology companies, including the ability to evaluate companies’ content moderation practices for transparency, proportionality, and the effectiveness of appeals processes.
The Private Sector
Adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and conduct human rights impact assessments for new markets, committing to doing no harm. Companies should commit to respecting the human rights of their users and addressing any adverse impact that their products might have on human rights. Companies should not build tools that prevent individuals from exercising their right to free expression, turn user data over to governments with poor human rights records, or provide surveillance or law enforcement equipment that is likely to be used to violate user rights. International companies should not seek to operate in countries where they know they will be forced to violate international human rights principles. Where companies operate, they should conduct periodic assessments to fully understand how their products and actions might affect rights like freedom of expression or privacy. When a product has been found to violate human rights, companies should suspend sales of the product to the violating actors and develop an immediate action plan to mitigate harm and prevent its further abuse.
For Civil Society
Continue to raise awareness about government censorship and surveillance efforts. Civil society groups globally should engage in innovative initiatives that inform the public about government censorship and surveillance, imprisoned journalists and online activists, and best practices for protecting internet freedom, particularly in the lead-up to elections, when internet freedom violations are most acute. Studies and surveys have shown that when users become more aware of censorship, they often take actions that enhance internet freedom and protect fellow users.
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