The United States is regarded as the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Is this true?

The recently released Freedom House Report provides fascinating insights into topics like net neutrality, limits on internet accessibility, obstacles to accessing the internet, and violations of user rights. The Freedom House Report spans pages of in-depth content, offering detailed insights into the Internet Freedom Score of users in the United States.

We begin our summary with a few quick facts:

  • US population 326 million
  • Internet penetration 76%
  • No social media services blocked
  • No political and social content blocked
  • Multiple arrests for various online violations

The US was given a score of 4/25 for obstacles to accessing the internet, 4/35 for limits on content, and 14/40 for violations of users rights.

What Are The Important Issues In US Internet Activity?

Folks living in the Land of the Free have different opinions when it comes to their freedom. This was highlighted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote in December 2017. The decision to overturn net neutrality provisions effectively allow US network service providers to determine how to treat different types of internet traffic. Equally important is the fact that the FCC now has less authority over broadband internet service providers. In practical terms, this means that companies in the US have much greater control over how they present content to their audience, what type of content they promote, and how they can direct the proverbial narrative online.

Another key development that has taken place is the implementation of ‘Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017.’ This was signed into law in April 2018. It was designed with good intent, but it has led to the companies censoring online content to prevent fines and other punitive measures.

Perhaps the most popularized element of online communication in the United States is the ubiquity of ‘fake news’ on social media and news sites. This gained traction in the 2016 US presidential election and has remained a hot topic in the media. Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and other companies are often ensnared in disinformation campaigns, mudslinging, and the perpetuation of false information. This has improved in recent months, but remains a problem.

What Has Happened To Internet Freedom In The US?

Without a doubt, the hottest topic is the net neutrality issue. The problem with this is that ISPs have more freedom to determine how they want to treat online traffic. Now, ISPs can favor certain websites over others, reduce loading times for certain sites, or speed them up for others.

This is clearly designed to favor a particular agenda or drive business to certain companies. For example, Google may promote all Google-friendly search results when users run a search online. Given that most of us only see the front-page results on Google, the listings there will gain the most traction with users. If Google, Yahoo, Bing, Safari or other search engines promote their own interests, the internet loses objectivity and users lose out. This is a slight against our freedoms.

In October 2017, Congress called on social media giants Google, Twitter and Facebook to testify about spreading disinformation online. Testimony revealed that 126 million Facebook users saw information spread by Russian operatives. Russia's Internet Research Agency was operating 3800 bona fide accounts on Twitter, and there were some 36,000 bots generating content from Russia. The evidence suggests malfeasance, manipulation, and possible gerrymandering was taking place. This undermines the integrity of online communications and jeopardizes our ability to sift fact from fiction.

Facebook has also been embroiled in all sorts of scandals recently, notably the Cambridge Analytica debacle where some 87 million users had their data exposed to a third-party researcher during the 2016 presidential election. This contravenes the US government's efforts to prevent foreign country interference in general and midterm elections. To the extent that these unscrupulous activities have been unearthed, the degree of internet freedom is severely tarnished by this type of misconduct.

In terms of government surveillance of online communications, Congress reauthorized the FISA Amendments Act for another six years through 2024. This means that the government can collect incidental information on communications of US citizens and residents. This includes metadata. There was scant support for the protection and preservation of privacy considerations in Congress, meaning that government has a free hand to intrude whenever it deems necessary.

The government can also subpoena data from companies (at home, or abroad) courtesy of the CLOUD Act. The Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act was signed into law on March 23, 2018, and it gives the US government full jurisdiction over all data of US-based companies regardless of where it is stored. It also permits reciprocal agreements with foreign governments wanting to petition US companies for data. In light of this it's better to do business with companies that store as little of your data as possible.

What Positive Developments Have Taken Place With Online Freedoms In The US?

The Supreme Court case – Carpenter vs United States – ruled in favor of the plaintiff, indicating that the US government requires a warrant to collect subscriber location data records from third parties. This was a major victory for privacy advocates, and the protections of individual rights online. This ruling on June 22, 2018 is a positive step towards guaranteeing the privacy of users.

Another area of concern in the US is the merging of broadband service providers. Big companies like Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications completed acquisitions that were approved by the FCC. This happened despite the fact 70% of fixed-line broadband ISPs were controlled by Comcast and Charter Communications by mid-2016.

Other major players in the industry include Verizon, CenturyLink, and AT&T. This is a fairly good spread of telecom providers offering internet services to the US populace. In 2018, Sprint and T-Mobile merged, but the US government is reluctant to fast-track any additional mergers for fear that these companies will gain too much control over the market.

While the US has relatively deep internet penetration at 76%, there are barriers to entry in the form of high costs for broadband Internet. Countries like South Korea, the Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland have greater high-quality internet penetration, at a lower cost. Fortunately, the US government does not inhibit connectivity, since private companies like Verizon and AT&T are responsible for maintaining telecommunications and the internet infrastructure in the country.

To clarify, here are some of the ways that the US government is protecting internet freedom:

  • Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1934 allows the proliferation of user-generated content across multiple platforms.
  • There is no government censoring of social viewpoints or political viewpoints online.
  • The First Amendment of the Constitution protects freedom of speech and the press and has routinely been invoked whenever Congress has tried to restrict sensitive content like pornography and indecency online.
  • The US government guards against sex trafficking of children, child pornography and related material, with the SAVE Act of May 2015. This act stands insofar as it does not violate the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Trends In US Online Communications And How Freedom Is Being Curtailed

Amnesty International reported that some 33% of females in the US experienced at least one incident of online harassment or abuse. The Pew Research Center found that 25% of black Americans are targeted as a result of their ethnicity or race.

Various online movements have started in recent years, and are now major drivers of social change and awareness. These include #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. The power of social media to effect positive change is one of the most notable developments in the US.

Various punitive measures are being implemented for different types of online activities. While these cases are rare, they do occur. Here are examples of two arrests between December 2017 and April 2018:

  • Christopher Daniels a.k.a. Rakem Balogun was arrested in December 2017 for advocating violence against police on Facebook.
  • Manuel Duran was arrested by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) while covering an immigration protest online.

While internet freedom is by no means ‘completely free’, the US ranks well.  Various areas of concern remain, such as net neutrality and government overreach, so steps should be taken to stay safe online, but privacy advocates and support from freedom of speech activists are having a meaningful impact.