Mariëlle Wijermars is Assistant Professor in Cyber-Security and Politics in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University. She conducts research on algorithmic governance, media freedom and the human rights implications of Internet policy. She is also a visiting researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute of the University of Helsinki, where she acts as the Principle Investigator of the project Sustainable Journalism for the Algorithmic Future funded by the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation (2020-2022). Her work has been published in, e.g., Journalism and Information, Communication and Society. She is the editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Digital Russia Studies (with Daria Gritsenko and Mikhail Kopotev), Palgrave Macmillan (2021) and Freedom of Expression in Russia’s New Mediasphere (with Katja Lehtisaari), Routledge (2020).
Tetyana Lokot is Associate Professor in Digital Media and Society at the School of Communications, Dublin City University. Her research focusses on protest and digital media in Ukraine and Russia, as well as internet freedom, censorship and internet governance in Eastern Europe. Her work has been published in Information, Communication and Society, Surveillance and Society, International Journal of Communication, Social Media + Society, and Digital Journalism. She is the author of Beyond the Protest Square: Digital Media and Augmented Dissent, Rowman & Littlefield (2021). She is the co-founder of the Interdisciplinary Digital Research Group at Dublin City University and Chair of the Media, Cities and Space Section, ECREA.
An ideal in crisis: Critiquing the global politics of internet freedom rankings
Today, internet freedom remains very much in the eyes of the beholder – or, in our case, the eyes of those who design indexes and rankings assessing it. The internet continues to be, paradoxically, at once a globalizing force challenging the hegemony of nation state governance models and a coercive tool for drawing new sovereign boundaries in this networked digital space. This conceptual crisis, in which the techno-optimist ideal of the internet as a democratising force has rapidly lost ground, is tightly interwoven with challenges in internet and platform governance brought about by the rise of authoritarianism and platform capitalism, and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is therefore essential to understand how and why the idea of internet freedom has changed over time and to examine the global politics of its promotion.
Our paper examines the politics of internet freedom rankings which play a central role in shaping the competing mythologies of internet freedom. Some current frameworks for assessing and measuring internet freedom are predicated too strictly on the dichotomy of democracy/non-democracy, while others rely on media freedom indicators to assess the far more complex issues of access, infrastructure and governance. These rankings have also become powerful “global pattern-setters” for how internet freedom is understood and tools of political or diplomatic influence.
We critically assess the landscapes, target audiences, indicators and analytical capacity of internet freedom rankings, as well as their linguistic and visual framings. We propose a typology of rankings based on the work they do: measuring/comparing; framing/presenting; and encouraging action. We also propose initial ideas for conducting comprehensive regime-agnostic assessments of internet policies, governance practices and digital rights. We thus lay the conceptual groundwork for developing a framework with both analytical capacity and complexity to critically evaluate internet governance regulations and practices across political systems and regime types.