By Heidi Heitkamp and Greg Walden
Following Free Speech Week, it is as important as ever to protect the first right enshrined in the Bill of Rights — our country’s defining difference across the globe — given the findings of a sobering new internet freedom report.
Per the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual “Freedom on the Net” analysis, “internet freedom around the world has dropped for the 11th consecutive year.” More specifically, “the environment for human rights online deteriorated in 30 countries” and just “18 countries registered net gains.” Overall, “in 56 countries, officials arrested, or convicted people for their online speech.” And a separate study released back in September also documents “50 internet shutdowns in 21 countries during the first five months of 2021” alone.
Freedom House’s findings do more than reveal what’s at risk in the broader battle among “techno-autocracies” such as China, Iran and Russia, and “techno-democracies” such as the United States, the European Union and Japan. The report amounts to a call for policymakers to strengthen a rather fragile freedom in the 21st century and support the work of domestic innovators as they fight to defend an open internet.
Despite the division that pervades our politics, Americans are united on the importance of an open, accessible internet. Earlier this year, an Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of the American Edge Project measured broad, bipartisan agreement for an internet that encourages free expression and dialogue, which respondents rightfully consider a cornerstone of American democracy. Large majorities of Americans believe “it’s more important to keep the internet open and accessible to all, even if some people post content I disagree with.” These firm attitudes are underpinned by “near-universal agreement that an open and accessible internet is important to freedom of expression, government accountability, and America’s role in the world.” Meanwhile, nearly 3 in 4 voters — a share on par with those who support health care reform — want President Joe Biden to prioritize this issue.
We agree and believe it behooves the Biden administration to support companies with American values as they compete in the global marketplace. This is especially important in light of the bleak landscape captured by Freedom House and cautionary tales the world has witnessed in recent months, from coup leaders in the Sudan who shut down the internet after seizing control, to the detainment of Belarusian dissident Roman Protasevich, to a Cuban internet cutoff in which the regime left the island “virtually incommunicado.”
Washington can give no quarter to a harrowing vision harbored by authoritarian countries that routinely exploit the internet to suppress their own citizens and punish political opponents. Likewise, those foreign adversaries who promote a closed, censored web would be emboldened if the Biden administration unintentionally allows them to effectively impede our country’s most innovative tech companies through international regulation.
Any Biden administration policy to address our country’s domestic tech innovators must therefore be guided by our values and the importance of America’s maintaining its competitive edge. Administration policies must also consider the ambitions of autocracies who hope to fill any vacuum created, as well as the gravity of consequences borne by citizens.
As our country’s competition with techno-autocracies escalates, it’s clear that America’s bedrock values have never been more vital or more vulnerable. And so, as we guard against the prospect of ever more common and costly government internet shutdowns emerging as the new norm, America — starting with our most innovative companies — must ensure our internet freedom, which is synonymous with human freedom and rights, is prioritized and preserved.
Former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Democrat, and former U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon Republican, are advisory board co-chairs of the American Edge Project.