U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has demanded that China conduct a scrupulous and open investigation of electronic intrusions that led Google to threaten to stop doing business in that country.
"The most recent situation, involving Google, has attracted a great deal of interest, and we look to the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough review of the cyberintrusions that led Google to make its announcement," Clinton told an audience at the Newseum in Washington. "And we also look for that investigation and its results to be transparent."
Google says it has been hacked by people working from computers in China, although there is no hard evidence that the Beijing government was behind the intrusions. In the meantime, Google says it is weighing whether to end operations in China, citing the country's strict censorship laws.
Clinton made her comments just hours after China tried to downplay the significance of the threat by Google, the U.S.-based Internet giant.
In Beijing, Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei, quoted by the official Xinhua news agency, said today that his government's differences with Google merely involve issues of government policy: Google resists censorship, while China says Google must obey its laws. He said the trouble has nothing to do with relations between China and the United States.
Nevertheless, the State Department said it soon plans to lodge a formal complaint with China over the Google matter.
In her remarks, Clinton said there have been growing efforts to censor the Internet in such countries as Uzbekistan, Tunisia, Egypt, and Vietnam, as well as in China. Yet the leaders of their governments -- particularly China's leaders -- should understand that they're being hurt by their own efforts at self-preservation, she said.
"The Internet has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it is fabulous," Clinton said. "There are so many people in China now online. But countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century."
China was only one part of Clinton's speech, which was streamed live over the Internet via the State Department's website. She spoke more broadly about the importance of an open Internet to advocate human rights, even as some use it for less noble purposes.
"Modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill," Clinton said. "The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable Al-Qaeda to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent. And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments, to crush dissent and deny human rights."
China's Internet law is open about what it forbids, including Internet searches for information about such topics as the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations or the call for more autonomy in Tibet.
But as transparent as they are, Clinton said, the laws run afoul of the International Declaration of Human Rights, which calls for untrammeled gathering, distribution, and receipt of news and other information worldwide.
Clinton said such practices are causing what she called an "information curtain" to close around countries that practice such censorship, making blog posting and other supposedly inappropriate Internet material the "samizdat" of the 21st century.
In her speech, she also referred to the inventive and effective use of the Internet by Iranians protesting the presidential election of last June, and the Iranian government's bloody response in a country where foreign journalists have been forbidden to report.
"In the demonstrations that followed Iran's presidential elections, grainy cell phone footage of a young woman's bloody murder provided a digital indictment of the government's brutality," Clinton said. "We've seen reports that when Iranians living overseas posted online criticism of their nation's leaders, their family members in Iran were singled out for retribution. And despite an intense campaign of government intimidation, brave citizen journalists in Iran continue using technology to show the world and their fellow citizens what is happening inside their country."
Clinton also said the Internet's inherent freedom leads some to use it as a way to anonymously recruit terrorists or to steal intellectual property. But while those practices pose grave political and economic threats, she said, they should not be seen as an excuse to limit the online experience or to invade privacy.
The time has come, Clinton said, to recognize the intrinsic value of the Internet, making it a source of valuable information to all.