How The U.S. Weaponizes “Internet Freedom”

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Several weeks ago, Edward Snowden took to Twitter to weigh in on the recent coup attempt in Venezuela. “Big: Venezuela’s opposition leader just launched a coup,” he wrote. “Reports coming in that the government is now blocking access to social media in response. Any interference with the right of the people to communicate freely must be condemned.”

Snowden, of course, was referring to the U.S.-backed attempt to oust the elected Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and install right-wing opposition party member Juan Guaidó. Yet Snowden’s concerns didn’t revolve around the damages visited upon Venezuela. Instead, as his critics observed, his focus on Internet access revealed a decidedly libertarian set of values: Sure, a potential (albeit failing) coup was in progress, hurling the Venezuelan people into the throes of imperialist upheaval—but wouldn’t someone think of the Internet access?

This time, it seemed Snowden, who was catapulted into international recognition for exposing the National Security Agency (NSA)’s surveillance abuses, was doing the U.S. government’s bidding. For decades, U.S. institutions have weaponized the arbitrary notion of “Internet freedom” for political gain. Their goal: to villainize “enemy states” in order to sustain U.S. hegemony, technologically and otherwise.

By various accounts, the notion of “Internet freedom” entered U.S. policy during the Clinton Administration, in the early stages of the Internet’s commercialization. In 1997, then-President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore argued that “governments must adopt a non-regulatory, market-oriented approach to electronic commerce” and warned against those that “will impose extensive regulations on the Internet and electronic commerce.” Stating that the “private sector should lead,” their proposal envisaged the Internet, first and foremost, as a global marketplace governed by laissez-faire individualism.

Hillary Clinton cemented this concept in a 2010 speech, insisting that the United States would confront governments that implemented online “censorship,” including, but not limited to, China, Iran, and North Korea—countries, like Venezuela, that have worked to develop infrastructures and economies independent of the U.S.’s capitalist framework. Clinton also touted the role of the private sector in such an effort. Advocating for an Internet defined by “free expression” and, most important, free markets, she lauded the Global Network Initiative, an “anti-censorship” collaboration among tech firms like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and various NGOs.

The Clintons’ Internet-policy postures have persisted into the present day. The U.S. nonprofit and Global Network Initiative member NetBlocks, for example, regularly issues reports warning of limited Internet access throughout the world. Among its most commonly cited countries, by far, is Venezuela. Over the course of the attempted Venezuelan coup, which began in January, NetBlocks has published dozens of reports of restrictions to access of various U.S. web services, including YouTube, Google, and Bing. Instead of offering geopolitical context to explain why a country might be forced to limit access, these reports offer an alternative narrative: A beleaguered country’s temporary (if exaggerated) shutdowns of a few websites, rather than a U.S.-led coup, are the real problem.

Think tank Freedom House, which is significantly funded by the U.S. government, offers similar assessments. According to its 2018 “Freedom on the Net” report, “digital authoritarianism” is on the rise, thanks largely to China, a country that has long curbed access to—and thus constrained the market and influence of—U.S. tech platforms. Not coincidentally, Freedom House has ranked China the least “free” country for four consecutive years, with Syria, Iran, and Cuba closely trailing. Meanwhile, Freedom House, as well as NetBlocks, have been consistent sources for U.S. corporate media, including the Washington Post and the New York Times.

For all of their admonitions about censorship abroad, these “watchdogs” have done little to underscore the censorship committed by U.S. tech companies. Freedom House concedes that “Internet freedom” has declined in the United States; the reasons it provides relate to such valid and significant issues as network monopolies, the FCC’s assault on net neutrality, and the “digital divide.” Nowhere, however, does Freedom House acknowledge Google’s and U.S. social media’s inveterate silencing of left-leaning media and organizations, nor the punitive surveillance activists disproportionately face. Instead, the think tank routinely deems the U.S. Internet free.”

This dovetails with another cause of “free Internet” acolytes: U.S. access to other countries’ data. Various countries, such as China, Russia, and Vietnam, have required storage of their data on devices within their own countries’ borders—a policy known as data localization. An assertion of sovereignty, data localization is often in direct opposition to the vision of an “open” Internet outlined by the Clintons. In other words, as it blocks foreign companies’ and governments’ access to international digital data, it wrests control of the Internet from the U.S. Right on cue, Freedom House’s 2018 report condemned China, Russia, Vietnam, and other countries’ decisions to institute data localization.

An illustrative scenario took place in 2013. In the wake of revelations that part of the NSA’s surveillance program included spying on Brazil, Brazil’s then-president Dilma Rousseff proposed a shift toward data localization. Aptly enough, former Google executive Eric Schmidt fretted not long before Rousseff’s proposal that data localization—which would corrode his company’s profits—might lead to a “balkanized Internet”:

“The real danger [from] the publicity about all of this is that other countries will begin to put very serious encryption – we use the term ‘balkanization’ in general – to essentially split the Internet and that the Internet’s going to be much more country specific. That would be a very bad thing, it would really break the way the Internet works, and I think that’s what I worry about.”

Schmidt’s concerns echo those of the Clintons. A “free” and “open” “global” Internet, they claim, is a democratic forum, the “great equalizer”; all countries will thereby be more enlightened for connecting to Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and other multibillion-dollar U.S. corporations with military contracts. This rationale permeates corporate media and think tanks, both of which characterize a “balkanized Internet” as a civilizational regression. What these proclamations omit is the fact that there are reasons some countries don’t agree with the U.S.’s digital prescriptions. The Internet doesn’t exist in a political vacuum; it’s an extension of geopolitical relations and all of the iniquities that accompany them.

These fearmongering editorials and reports will continue, invoking imperialism’s dog whistles: “censorship,” “authoritarianism,” and other affronts to putative “freedom.” Yet these are only a problem to those who would believe that the U.S.’s superpower status is some sort of good. Vulnerable countries’ efforts to defend themselves from the scourge of exploitation, in any way they see fit, aren’t a pity or a threat; they’re a liberatory necessity. No matter what the U.S. insists, there are plenty of places—digital and physical—where its capitalist metrics of “freedom” simply don’t belong.