The National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC) is challenging the independence and objectivity of Freedom House in its recently-released Freedom on the Net Index.
Today, NLPC President Ken Boehm sent Freedom House President Mark Lagon a letter detailing the following points:
- Google is a major funder of the Index
- Authors of several country reports have financial ties to Google
- The Index is annually released at Google headquarters
- The criteria used to rate nations seem to reflect Google business priorities
Below is the full text of the Boehm letter:
As one of the premier independent watchdog organizations dedicated to the protection of freedom and democracy around the globe, Freedom House has a special responsibility to shine the light on examples of governments undermining the causes of freedom, human rights, and civil liberties.
At the same time, Freedom House has a special and indeed unique challenge to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest in championing the advancement of freedom globally. In this regard, we think you would agree that Freedom House has a duty to carefully safeguard the integrity of its scholarship and brand from those who may wish to hijack them for their own self-serving purposes.
That’s why the National Legal and Policy Center was alarmed to discover what appears to be an unusually high degree of influence laundering by Google, one of your major corporate sponsors, in the drafting of your annual Internet Freedom Index.,
According to our research, Google has been a major financial contributor to every Freedom on the Net Index since at least 2011. Moreover, several of the launch events for Freedom on the Net have been hosted at Google’s Headquarters. Google’s global head of free expression and international relations, Ross LaJeunesse, has given the opening remarks and spoken at several of these events.
Far more concerning than Google’s financial contributions to Freedom House, however, is the degree to which individuals with financial ties to Google appear to have even been responsible for the actual drafting of many of the country reports of Freedom on the Net.
For example, and as outlined below, our cursory research of the Freedom on the Net 2015 report finds that at least seven of the country reports were drafted by authors with financial ties to Google.
Lastly, NLPC is also troubled by what appears to be Freedom House’s equating the self-interested corporate policy goals of its funders with legitimate digital civil rights issues in arriving at its annual net freedom rankings as outlined in the examples below.
As you know, New America’s Open Technology Institute drafted the Freedom on the Net report section for the United States. As you may be aware, Google is a substantial financial contributor to New America. Additionally, Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, serves as the chairman of the board at New America and is a $1 million-plus contributor to the organization.
More concerning, however, is that the conclusions of the United States report appear to closely mirror Google’s public policy and lobbying priorities. Google for instance, has been one of the staunchest corporate advocates of so-called net neutrality, a vague and amorphous concept that has now been hijacked by government regulators to treat the Internet as a government regulated public utility.
We find it highly concerning that the Freedom on the Net section for the United States justifies a higher freedom ranking in the U.S. for 2015 based in part on the Federal Communications Commission approving unprecedented and highly controversial new rules allowing it to regulate the Internet as a public utility for the first time in history.
This is particularly curious (but perhaps not surprising given New America’s substantial financial ties to Google) when one considers that in several other sections of the Freedom on the Net report, Freedom House scores “government regulation” or “Internet regulation” as a negative indicator of a country’s Internet freedom.
Parenthetically, this is not the first time New America has been charged with influence laundering. Recently, The Register reported an example in which New America released its “Ranking Digital Rights” report, which gave Google’s parent company Alphabet, Inc. its highest award for “protecting your digital rights.”
As The Register pointed out, however, the Ranking Digital Rights report was highly selective in its analysis:
The RDR’s narrow definition of “digital rights” is also problematic. For example, being able to own and control your own stuff is a human right, one that requires no corporate entity, no registration process (in most of the world) and no expensive guru to interpret. That’s a right recognised in the UN's Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and many other declarations. Similarly, the right to protect your reputation is widely recognised, and highly valued in Europe. Google, and other large Silicon Valley consumer data processing giants, don’t like these. So these rights are excluded from the Project’s remit.
According to Freedom House, the 2015 Freedom on the Net country report for Argentina was written by Eduardo Bertoni, the Director of the Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information (CELE) at the Palermo University School of Law.
Mr. Bertoni filed an Amicus brief in 2014 in an Argentina court case in which Maria Belen Rodriguez, an Argentine model, sued Google for linking her modeling images to escort services and pornographic websites. Ms. Rodriguez was neither an escort nor porn actress and demanded that Google remove the images.
What neither the Freedom House nor Mr. Bertoni disclose is that Mr. Bertoni acknowledged in his 2014 Amicus brief that he had received financial support from Google Inc. and Google Argentina.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given Google’s financial support, Mr. Bertoni has been an outspoken opponent of so-called “right to be forgotten” laws, a key public policy challenge for Google globally in 2015.
Mr. Bertoni has called such laws an “insult to Latin American history”, and devotes significant attention to discussion of the Rodriguez case in the Argentina section of the Freedom on the Net report.
Ultimately, the Argentina Supreme Court found for Google in the “right to be forgotten” case by striking down intermediary liability. Mr. Bertoni called the Supreme Court precedent “a valuable precedent for freedom of expression” in the Freedom on the Net report and included a footnote to an op-ed he wrote with the same title.
One of the authors for the Brazil country report was Carolina Rossini according to Freedom House. Rossini is currently the Vice President of International Policy at Public Knowledge.
According to Google’s U.S. Public Policy Transparency page, Public Knowledge is also a recipient of Google funding. Google has also been highlighted as a “Platinum Sponsor” of Public Knowledge’s annual IP3 Awards in years past.
In addition to serving as a vice president at Public Knowledge, Rossini also served as a Project Director at Google-funded New America from 2013 to 2014. She also currently serves as an advisory board member at a non-profit called Americans for an Affordable Internet (A4AI). A4AI is a State Department initiative managed by USAID and founded by Ann Mei Chang, a former Google executive. Google is the largest corporate supporter of A4AI and its parent organization the World Wide Web Foundation with contributions totaling $1 million.
As with the United States and Argentina examples above, Ms. Rossini devotes considerable attention to key Google priorities such as “net neutrality” and “right to be forgotten”/intermediate liability issues.
According to Freedom House, Fundacion Karisma and the Law, Internet & Society Group wrote the Colombia section of the Freedom on the Net report. Google’s “Policy Fellowship” home page lists Fundacion Karisma as a fellowship recipient to focus on issues such as “copyright reform, net neutrality, and Internet governance among other issues.
Fundacion Karisma also lists Google on its “Apoyos y aliados” (Supporters and allies) page as the organization’s only corporate sponsor. The group has also received financial support from Google previously in the form of sponsorships for Fundacion Karisma’s “Human Rights in the Digital Era” conferences.
Fundacion Karisma’s Colombia report touts an important ruling concerning the 2013 case of Guillermo Martinez v. Google as a positive precedent in Colombia’s Net Freedom ranking. As with the case in Argentina, Colombia’s courts ruled that Google was not liable for the content of newspaper articles the search engine linked to accusing Mr. Martinez of being part of a mafia group.
Ukraine, South Africa, Nigeria
Additionally, based on our research the authors of the Ukraine, South Africa and Nigeria reports also appear to have either direct or indirect Google financial ties.
The author of the Ukraine report, Tetyana Lokot, is a contributing editor at Global Voices, which receives financial support from Google.
Alex Comninos, the author of the South Africa report, is now an independent researcher, but previously was employed by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). Google has been a financial supporter of APC projects, including funding APC projects related to infrastructure sharing, universal access and broadband projects in Africa. In 2012, Google also sponsored a policy fellow at APC, Maureen Nwobodo from Nigeria whose work focused on intermediary liability issues.
Gbenga Sesan, the author of the Nigeria report, also serves as the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN). PIN acknowledges on its website that the organization’s work is supported financially by Google.
Google, Net Neutrality, the Right to be Forgotten, and Data Localization
While Freedom House has done an admirable job in many cases of ranking countries’ Internet freedom based on objective benchmarks that largely and correctly view oppressive government action as a threat (e.g. government surveillance, government blocking of encryption, government assaults on anonymity, arrest and intimidation of Internet users), it is in danger of squandering its credibility on other issues by confusing legitimate digital civil rights issues with self-interested corporate policy goals and priorities.
Seven years ago in a prophetic piece titled “Google disguises capitalism as civil rights”, ex-Google employee Ted Dziuba argued that the Mountain View company cleverly leveraged policy issues it cared about as either contributing to or detracting from “Internet freedom” or an “open Internet.” In reality, many of these issues were simply beneficial to Google’s bottom line.
Net neutrality, and Freedom House’s categorization of that issue as contributing to “Internet freedom,” is one such example. As Mr. Dziuba pointed out in 2008 with respect to net neutrality:
It's convenient for Google to support this cause because it affects their bottom line. If ISPs were allowed to charge Google a premium to deliver their array of text ads, the magic money machine might stall out. If business interests are aligned with supporting net neutrality, are they really agreeing with it on a philosophical level, that all packets were created equally, endowed by their creators with certain unalienable rights: routing, delivery, and avoidance of throttling? Or is it simpler than that, where network neutrality is a good thing because it keeps the margins high?
Indeed, it appears to be a huge leap of logic for Freedom House to justify how governments regulating the Internet as a public utility — as they now do in the United States — could in any way contribute to the cause of preserving and protecting Internet freedom. This is especially confusing given that Freedom House in almost all other cases correctly views government as the primary threat to Internet freedom.
The “right to be forgotten” issue is another example that appears to confuse Google’s corporate policy priorities with legitimate digital civil rights. “Right to be forgotten” emerged in 2014 from the desire of individuals primarily in Europe to have certain information, videos or photographs about themselves deleted so they cannot be found by search engines. This information may include information such as revenge porn, references to petty crime, or libelous or slanderous information about an individual.
The right to own and control “your own stuff”, including your reputation, image, literary or artistic production, or likeness, is a human right and one that is enshrined in the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights among others. In Europe in particular, the right to protect and manage your own reputation is a digital right that is highly valued.
Such “right to be forgotten” initiatives however are a threat to Google’s corporate interests, and have thus been reframed as “threats” to the open Internet or to Internet freedom. In fact, the 2015 Freedom of the Net report mentions “right to be forgotten” initiatives more than 40 times as an issue that has increasingly “raised concerns among Internet freedom groups and free speech activists.”
Another policy issue that confuses Google’s corporate policy goals with legitimate digital civil rights is the issue of data localization. While data localization initiatives – requiring companies like Google to store data on servers located within the country in question – are not as big of an issue this year, data localization was a key issue in many countries in 2014 and an issue that Google vigorously opposed.
Freedom House’s 2014 Freedom on the Net report characterized data localization efforts as an “emerging threat” to online freedom and even admitted that data localization efforts “could create prohibitive barriers for companies seeking to operate in certain countries.”
Ironically, data localization initiatives emerged as a consequence of, and in response to, a very legitimate threat to Internet freedom – the revelations by Edward Snowden and others about government agencies such as the NSA spying on Internet users globally.
Freedom House has a stellar reputation and has been an invaluable supporter and defender of the cause of freedom across the globe. Your annual Freedom of the Net report is widely considered to be the preeminent ranking of digital freedom in the world today.
However, we caution you to be extra-vigilant in protecting your reputation from corporate interests that may seek to leverage and capitalize on Freedom House’s credibility to launder their own corporate policy interests disguised as “Internet freedom” issues.
In this regard, we call your attention to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent accusation that a Brookings Institution scholar wrote a research paper to benefit a corporate patron. Specifically, Warren charged that the scholar’s paper was “highly compensated and editorially compromised work on behalf of an industry player seeking a specific conclusion.” To argue that Google is not seeking to achieve the same thing by laundering its influence through Freedom House simply doesn’t pass the smell test.
We urge you therefore to protect the credibility of your reputation by carefully scrutinizing any input by your corporate funders in the future and to ensure that such input is not self-interested but genuinely addresses the cause of Internet freedom.
We further urge you to add to Freedom House financial disclosures by requiring Freedom on the Net authors to report any financial relationships they have with corporations that stand to benefit from the country reports they author.
 Influence laundering is the practice of legitimizing a policy through what appear to be independent non-profits in which corporations have made substantial financial investments.
 Note: NLPC has not done an exhaustive review of all authors of the Freedom on the Net country reports and is continuing to analyze the 2015 report as well as previous years to document additional Google financial ties.
 Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom on the Net report references net neutrality as a positive contributor to Internet freedom 123 times.