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Clinton Urges Worldwide Respect For Internet Freedom

  • Richard Solash

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks on Internet freedom and democracy at George Washington University in Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks on Internet freedom and democracy at George Washington University in Washington.

WASHINGTON -- One year ago, the Obama administration enlisted its top diplomat to deliver for the first time a major U.S. foreign policy speech devoted exclusively to Internet freedom.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's January 2010 warning that countries who restrict the Internet imperil their own progress came in the wake of Chinese government hacking of democracy activists' Google accounts.

On February 15, Clinton delivered version 2.0 of that speech -- proof that the topic is firmly embedded in Washington's foreign-policy calculations. And once again, the headlines of the day -- on the use of social media sites to help organize historic protests in Tunisia and Egypt -- provided immediate context.

Speaking at George Washington University, Clinton said that in Tunisia, "online censorship was on par with China and Iran" but could not be sustained, and the Internet was eventually used as a tool to help coordinate a revolution against those same levels of government repression.

Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Clinton suggested, had made the wrong choice when faced with the "dictator's dilemma."

"We believe that governments that have erected to barriers to Internet freedom, whether they're technical filters or censorship regimes or attacks on those who exercise their rights to expression and assembly online, will eventually find themselves boxed in," she said. "They will face a dictator's dilemma and will have to chosen between letting the walls fall or paying the price to keep them standing."

What governments must do to deal with the "complex and combustible" online world, she argued, is to maintain robust Internet freedom while registering the associated risks.

"We recognize that an open Internet comes with challenges. It calls for ground rules to protect against wrongdoing and harm. And Internet freedom raises tensions, like all freedoms do. But we believe the benefits far exceed the costs," she said.

Freedom And Security Online

The aspects of the Internet that make it a "force for unprecedented progress," Clinton said -- including "its openness, its leveling effect, its reach, and speech" -- also allow terrorist groups to recruit members, human traffickers to target victims, and perpetrators to enact transnational crime.

Clinton suggested that the world should respond by devising strategies to deal with the threats but without restricting online freedom.

She mentioned investments in cybersecurity and close coordination with other states as examples of Washington's approach to reconcile internet liberty and security.

Clinton also warned against authoritarian governments' attempts to justify a crackdown on Internet freedom under the guise of ensuring safety -- a tactic she described as a standard technique of oppressors that has been adapted to the digital age.

To counter such crackdowns, the State Department plans to issue up to $30 million in grant funding in the coming year to "a burgeoning group of technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against Internet repression."

Efforts Falling Short?

The same $30 million came up elsewhere in Washington on February 15, but in a context that is much less flattering for the Obama administration.

A new report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee criticizes the United States for falling short in its efforts to counter Internet censorship in China and for investing too little in technologies designed to circumvent censorship. Beijing, meanwhile, is allegedly exporting its censorship technology to countries that include Iran and Belarus.

According to the report, Congress has given the State Department $50 million for Internet freedom programs since 2008, but $30 million has not yet been spent. Little of what has been spent has reportedly gone to censorship circumvention technology.

Clinton defended the Obama administration's position that support for Internet freedom is most effective when it is distributed among different programs, such as Civil Society 2.0, a government program that links NGOs with technological resources.

"While the rights we seek to protect and support are clear, the various ways that these rights are violated are increasingly complex. I know some have criticized us for not pouring funding into a single technology, but we believe there is no silver bullet in the struggle against Internet repression," she said. "There's no 'app' for that."

Though she championed Internet openness above all else, Clinton also acknowledged the need to ensure that some communication be kept confidential, and thus offline.

But she said Washington's objections to the online publication late last year of 250,000 classified U.S. documents by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks does not contradict its commitment to an open Internet.

"Let me be clear," she said. "I said that the WikiLeaks incident began with a theft, just as if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase. The fact that WikiLeaks used the Internet is not the reason we criticized its actions. WikiLeaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom."

Clinton also denied reports that the U.S. government "coerced" private companies to deny Internet hosting to the organization.
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