On Tuesday, November 14, 2017 the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing on internet freedom in the OSCE region. The panelists – Sanja Kelly, Director of Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net; Dariya Orlova, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director for Research at the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kyiv, Ukraine; Berivan Orucoglu, Human Rights Defenders Program Coordinator at the McCain Institute; and Jason Pielemeier, Policy Director at the Global Network Initiative – discussed concerning developments in participating States.
First, Sanja Kelly provided an overview of Freedom House’s work on internet freedom issues and described the recent edition of the Freedom on the Net report, which was released that very day. The report found that internet freedom declined for the seventh consecutive year around the world, but that the situation among OSCE participating States is more diverse. The region includes some of the report’s best performers, such as Estonia, Iceland, Germany and the United States, as well as some of its worst performers, with Russia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. She also noted the concerning finding that Russia is using the internet to interfere in domestic processes in other OSCE participating States. She pointed out that the “same manipulation techniques, including paid pro-government commentators, bots and fake news, that the Russian authorities have been using in their disinformation campaigns abroad, have long been used … against Russian independent journalists, political opponents and other critical voices.”
After that, Dariya Orlova gave an account of the deteriorating internet freedom situation in Ukraine. To blame for this decline, she said, is the introduction of bans on several Russian internet services, including social media networks, email services and search engines. According to Dariya, there has been a lack of outspoken critique against these measures among domestic audiences. She also drew attention to the increasingly dangerous environment that online activists and journalists find themselves in. Then, she briefly explained some of the Kremlin’s tactics when it comes to weaponizing social media platforms.
Berivan Orucoglu focused her remarks on the sharp decline in internet freedom that Turkey has experienced in the past few years. In her eyes, this reflects a crackdown on press freedom and freedom of expression more generally. In an effort to control the narrative, the Turkish government has jailed journalists, curbed dissent on social media, as well as in the mainstream media and otherwise intimidated critics. More often than not, national security reasons are cited as justification for these measures.
In closing, Jason Pielemeier introduced his organization, the Global Network Initiative, to the audience and proceeded to place some of the aforementioned internet freedom trends into historical context. By doing so, he tried to understand the motivations of repressive regimes to clamp down on online activity. He also touched on more technical aspects of the discussion, such as data localization and the effects such measures have on intelligence operations.