Sanja Kelly is the director for Freedom on the Net, Freedom House’s assessment of global Internet freedom.
Freedom House is the oldest human rights organization in the United States. We work to defend human rights and promote democratic change with a focus on political rights and civil liberties. We act as a catalyst for freedom through a combination of timely analytical reports, effective advocacy, and programs in over two dozen countries.
I work in our analysis department, where I direct Freedom House’s research portfolio on Internet freedom–examining issues like online censorship, surveillance, and other Information Communication Technology-related policies throughout the world. In the process, I work with over 100 activists on the ground who collect data and write reports on Internet freedom in their countries and helping them hone their research and advocacy skills. I also craft our organizational viewpoints on various policies related to Internet freedom, liaise with tech companies, and represent Freedom House at the UN, IGF, Freedom Online Coalition, and other international venues.
Tell us about a key project you are currently working on that deal with the peoples’ fundamental rights online?
Freedom House works on a range Internet freedom projects—from analyzing online censorship to supporting local advocates in their fight against threatening policies to engaging with various governments and international bodies to keep the Internet open and free.
What we are best known for in the tech circles is our “Freedom on the Net” project that tracks the state of Internet freedom in 65 countries. It is the most referenced and widely-utilized source of information for activists, journalists, governments, and the private sector, describing in detail policies affecting Internet freedom in each country, as well as emerging threats and opportunities. Over 100 analysts—most of whom are local bloggers, academics, activists, or lawyers—participate in the writing and research process each year.
I am really excited about how the project has been used by different audiences to promote positive change. For example, activists in places in Pakistan, Thailand, Azerbaijan, and Venezuela (among many others) have used the findings to challenge their governments’ repressive policies.
What do you see as the greatest opportunities for to empower people with rights online?
The Internet has changed the way people communicate, socialize, and conduct business. It also empowers people to be more engaged in civic life and organize, but also more easily challenge the authorities when their rights are violated.
In our research, we have documented how, because of the Internet, it has become more difficult for governments to hide their repressive practices and human rights violations. In places like Saudi Arabia and Russia, for example, people were able to record video clips of abuses, post them online, and force the government to react. In other words, the Internet has produced an extraordinary way to hold political elites accountable. In countries like Morocco, the Internet has enabled activists to organize effectively and push the government to pass new legislation that protects women, which they have been trying to achieve for years. So, in my view, the Internet provides an opportunity to spearhead improvements in any sphere of life, and that is likely to continue with the development of new tools and technologies.
What are the biggest threats to the Internet?
Considering the potential that the Internet presents, many governments around the world have started to impose restrictions on what can be said or done online. Our research demonstrates, for example, that over 60 percent of all people who use the Internet live in a country where criticism of the ruling authorities has been subject to censorship. Or that nearly half of those live in countries where individuals were attacked or killed for their online activities over the past year. So, one of the greatest threats comes from governments and others who want to prevent fee spread of ideas.
Additionally, we have seen more and more governments using the Internet and new technologies to surveil their citizens and political opponents, which at times has led to arrests or even death. In places like China and Vietnam, the authorities are not restrained with check-and-balances that work and can conduct surveillance as they see fit. What really strikes me about these cases is that, very often, implicated people are not hard-core human rights activists, but everyday users who dare to criticize their government online.
How can people get involved with Freedom House?
We encourage people from different countries to contribute to our research by sharing various methods of online censorship they are facing, especially since they happen. We also encourage activists and NGOs to talk to us about project ideas that would have a meaningful impact on protecting Internet freedom in their societies—we might be able to help with grant support or by connecting them to others in our network. But anyone—whether you are a techie or a policy wonk—is welcome to get in touch with me so we can talk about how to make the Internet free and accessible for all.
Find out more about the work the Internet Society is doing on human rights by visiting our Internet and Human Rights Resource Centre.
Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.