Analysis | The Technology 202: Internet freedom down globally as many countries exploit tech regulations, report finds – The Washington Post

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.
A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.
Greetings and welcome to the Technology 202! Below: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) previews her hearing today with Facebook and Google executives. But first:
Internet freedom declined across the globe and in the U.S. this year, but for two vastly different reasons, according to a report released Tuesday: Many governments abroad exploited regulatory crackdowns against the tech giants to surveil and censor their citizens, while the United States’ hands-off approach to the industry has eroded public access to reliable information online. 
Taken together the findings offer both a call to action and a warning for U.S. policymakers. Though more Internet rules must be enacted urgently, if implemented carelessly they can lead to government overreach and infringe on users’ rights, researchers said. 
While governments around the world are finally grappling with the largely unfettered growth of the tech sector, most of the measures authorities have pursued have been “exploited to subdue free expression and gain greater access to private data,” according to the D.C.-based nonprofit Freedom House. That’s contributed to a decrease in Internet freedom globally for the 11th-consecutive year.
“In the high stakes battles between governments and tech companies, human rights are the main casualties,” senior research analyst Allie Funk, who co-wrote the group’s yearly “Freedom on the Net” report, said during a news briefing Monday.
The group found that while 48 countries have pursued legislative or administrative actions to regulate tech companies in the past year, only a few have the potential to meaningfully rein in abuses by industry behemoths. 
Instead, many of these actions “simply impose state and even political responsibilities on private firms without securing greater rights for users,” according to the report. That includes new regulations in India, Turkey, Indonesia and Russia that require companies to take down certain types of content and could enable government censorship against opposing viewpoints.  
Governments shutting down Internet access and blocking social media, arresting citizens over their online activity and using spyware technology also contributed to the global decline. According to its sample, Freedom House found that a majority of people with digital access live in countries considered to be not free or only “partly free” on the Internet.
Internet freedom in the United States also declined for a fifth straight year, though only slightly. The drop reflected a growing lack of reliability and diversity among sources of information online in the United States, particularly because of the fact that the “online landscape was saturated with election-related disinformation that contributed to a violent attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021,” the report said.
Funk said the U.S. government’s hands-off approach to regulating the tech sector has enabled a years-long rise in disinformation and conspiratorial content online.
“The U.S. particularly has really prioritized this laissez-faire approach to this industry which has created opportunities for all these different types of harms, whether it’s the electoral interference we saw from the Russian government to the offline violence that we just saw with the January 6th attack,” she told The Technology 202 in an interview after the briefing.
Funk said the trend calls for more government oversight of the tech sector, but figuring out how to regulate in the space without infringing on freedom of speech is “the million dollar question.”
Creating more transparency requirements for tech companies and giving users more due process when their content is restricted are two potential avenues, Funk suggested.
One bipartisan proposal reintroduced this year on Capitol Hill, the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency, or PACT, Act, aims to do just that. It would require that platforms give users more rights to appeal their content rulings and regularly disclose information about the content they remove or deprioritize. It would also amend the tech industry’s prized legal shield, known as Section 230, to require platforms to remove illegal content within four days or face liability.
Funk said out of the bevy of bills introduced in Washington to revamp Section 230, which shields digital services from lawsuits over content posted by their users, the PACT Act “is the most promising of them all.” But she cautioned that notice and takedown requirements such as those in the PACT Act can lead to greater removal of constitutionally protected speech online.
Overall, the United States ranked 12th in the world on Internet freedom, lagging behind other Western democracies including Canada, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. 
China, which has moved aggressively to crack down on online dissent and most recently on its own tech industry, was dead-last in the rankings for the seventh straight year.
Internet affordability issues, market concentration among Internet service providers, limited regulatory safeguards against government surveillance and data collection by private companies, the threat of cybersecurity attacks and the weaponization of disinformation by foreign and domestic actors all contributed to the United States’ far-from-perfect scorecard. 
Perhaps most glaring, however, is the “retreat of U.S. leadership” in setting rules of the road for the Internet, Funk said, noting that instead all eyes are on the European Union.
“The U.S. led the way on ensuring the Internet achieved the global scale that it is, and we think it’s really important that the U.S. steps up and leads on regulation on these really important issues,” she said during the interview.
Facebook and Google’s data practices will be in the spotlight at a hearing held today by Senate Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee.
Klobuchar, who chairs the panel, said the session will focus on how the tech giants’ vast troves of user data serve as a “competitive restraint.”

“It is very hard as the world evolves here to get into any kind of platform business, it’s kind of a barrier to entry if you don’t have access” to data, Klobuchar told The Technology 202 in an interview ahead of the hearing.
Klobuchar said she expects the hearing to also focus on potential legislative and regulatory remedies, including data privacy legislation, changes to U.S. antitrust law and calls for more funding for federal competition and privacy watchdogs.
Google executive Markham Erickson plans to tell the panel that the sheer amount of data by itself isn’t enough to build successful products, according to an excerpt of his testimony obtained by The Technology 202.
It’s the first time a Facebook executive will testify on Capitol Hill since a Wall Street Journal investigation on how it deals with issues like algorithmic changes, use of its services in developing countries and vaccine hesitancy. Steve Satterfield, the company’s vice president for privacy and public policy, is slated to appear.
There’s a “powerful and compelling basis for urgent action” in the form of FTC rulemaking, nine Democratic senators told Khan in a letter, which was led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s consumer protection panel. The lawmakers want the FTC to consider “strong protections” for marginalized communities’ data; bans on the “exploitative targeting” of children and other issues; opt-in rules and opt-out standards.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel; Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the Finance Committee; Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who chairs Judiciary’s tech and privacy subcommittee; and prominent Big Tech critic Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) were among the signatories.
The state antitrust enforcers rallied behind a sweeping package of House measures aimed at boosting antitrust powers and limiting the power of major technology companies. “Congress must pass this package of antitrust bills and give us the tools necessary to ensure competition remains strong across New York and the rest of the nation,” New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) said.
The state attorneys general who support the legislation include both Democrats and Republicans.
Twitter discussed the good and bad parts of Apple’s latest major software update. Our colleague, Heather Kelly:
KTLA-TV’s Rich DeMuro cheered a feature designed to limit email tracking:
Others, like Om Malik, took issue with a design change to Safari:
Senate Democrat asks Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for policies on extremist violent content (CNN)
UK’s Johnson discussed taxation with Amazon’s Bezos (Reuters)
Apple Is Working on iPhone Features to Help Detect Depression, Cognitive Decline (Wall Street Journal)
Instacart workers are asking users to #DeleteInstacart (Motherboard)
Zuckerberg denies claim he did deal with Trump (The Independent)
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