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Clinton Warns Against 'Disastrous' Curbs On Internet Freedom

  • RFE/RL

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (file photo)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (file photo)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned governments against efforts to restrict the Internet within their national borders, saying such measures would be "disastrous" for human freedoms and the Internet as a whole.

Aides said the top U.S. diplomat was referring to proposals on governing the Internet introduced by Russia, China, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

Without naming those countries, Clinton said: "Some governments use Internet-governance issues as a cover for pushing an agenda that would justify restricting human rights online. We must be wary of such agendas and united in our shared conviction that human rights apply online."

Clinton added that "Fragmenting the global Internet by erecting barriers around national Internets would change the landscape of cyberspace. In this scenario, the Internet would contain people in a series of digital bubbles rather than connecting them in a global network. Breaking the Internet into pieces would give you echo chambers rather than an innovative global marketplace of ideas."

'Dictator's Dilemma'

Speaking at a conference on Internet freedom in The Hague, Netherlands, Clinton also warned that governments attempting to erect national firewalls would eventually face the "dictator's dilemma."

She said these governments "will eventually find themselves boxed in.... They will have to choose between letting the walls fall or paying the price for keeping them standing by resorting to greater oppression and to escalating the opportunity cost of missing out on the ideas that have been blocked and the people who have been disappeared."

Speaking before representatives of more than 20 countries, Clinton called on the international community to ensure that "human rights are as respected online as offline" -- a task she said three of the countries absent from the conference were not fulfilling.

"In both Syria and Iran, many other online activists -- actually too many to name -- have been detained, imprisoned, beaten, and even killed for expressing their views and organizing their fellow citizens," Clinton said.

"And perhaps the most well-known blogger in Russia, Aleksei Navalny, was sentenced on Tuesday to 15 days in jail after he took part in protests over the Russian elections."

Don't Sell 'Tools Of Repression'

Clinton was speaking two days after attending a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vilnius on December 6. There, the United States and two dozen other nations called for the adoption of a declaration of freedoms in cyberspace.

Progress on the draft resolution was quickly stalled, however, by Russia, Belarus, and other OSCE members who view the Internet as threatening their political order.

At the Dutch Internet-freedom conference, which was co-sponsored by Google, Clinton also urged the private sector to ensure it's doing its part to maintain a free Internet.

She said that "smart companies" make the right decision before being asked by their governments, or being mandated by sanctions, not to sell technology to countries that repress free speech and dissent.

"Today's news stories are about companies selling the hardware and software of repression to authoritarian governments," Clinton said. "When companies sell surveillance equipment to the security agency of Syria or Iran or in past times, Qaddafi, there can be no doubt it will be used to violate rights."

Activists have used Facebook, Twitter, and other Internet technology to organize protests against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, whose regime was overthrown this summer.

Clinton said companies should consider how to limit the resale of products to authoritarian regimes and how their products might be used in unintended ways to curb freedoms online.

with agency reports

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