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Unrestricted open Internet access is a top foreign policy for the US

Hillary Clinton on Internet Freedom

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks on Internet Freedom at the Newseum

“We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” – Secretary  Clinton.

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a major speech on Internet Freedom to an audience of diplomats, politicians, journalists, tech executives and online activists in Washington, D.C.

The Wall Street Journal headline was clear this morning: “Internet access is the Clinton Doctrine.” As reported there, the U.S.  has made unrestricted access to the Internet a top foreign-policy priority.

“This issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit,” said Clinton. “It’s about whether we live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors.”

Secretary Clinton’s speech at the Newseum was streamed live at NetFreedom.state.gov. The discussion on Twitter was aggregated at the #netfreedom hashtag. Notably, many of the tweets showing up there are in Chinese.

“The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet,” said Secretary Clinton. “When something happens in Haiti or Hunan, the rest of us learn about it in real time – from real people. And we can respond in real time as well. “

The full text of Secretary of State Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom can be found at State.gov. Excerpts are posted below. Video is available here.

“Now, in many respects, information has never been so free,” said Clinton. “There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. And even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.”

“On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. Now, this challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic.”

Where the Berlin Wall Crumbled, an “information wall” has emerged

“The Berlin Wall symbolized a world divided and it defined an entire era,” said Clinton. “Today, remnants of that wall sit inside this museum where they belong, and the new iconic infrastructure of our age is the internet. Instead of division, it stands for connection. But even as networks spread to nations around the globe, virtual walls are cropping up in place of visible walls.”

These walls are made of bits, not bricks.

“Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks,” she said. “They’ve expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world. And beyond this partition, viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day.”

Engaging in censorship could have new consequences.

“States, terrorists, and those who would act as their proxies must know that the United States will protect our networks,” said Secretary Clinton. “Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government, and our civil society. Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation. In an internet-connected world, an attack on one nation’s networks can be an attack on all.”

Secretary Clinton also asserted a new freedom for the Internet, extending the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“The final freedom, one that was probably inherent in what both President and Mrs. Roosevelt thought about and wrote about all those years ago, is one that flows from the four I’ve already mentioned: the freedom to connect – the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate.”

Secretary Clinton also made it clear the the U.S. would support the development and distribution of tools to enable Internet freedom. Such moves might be analogous to distributing radio components and communications gear to partisans in World War II.

“We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship,” she said. “We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages, and with the training they need to access the internet safely. The United States has been assisting in these efforts for some time, with a focus on implementing these programs as efficiently and effectively as possible. Both the American people and nations that censor the internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom.”

Clinton was clear regarding how access to information can be vital in preventing conflict:

“Information freedom supports the peace and security that provides a foundation for global progress. Historically, asymmetrical access to information is one of the leading causes of interstate conflict. When we face serious disputes or dangerous incidents, it’s critical that people on both sides of the problem have access to the same set of facts and opinions.”

She also referenced the Global Network Initiative, a distributed group of companies, civil society organizations, investors and academics dedicated to “protecting and advancing freedom of expression and privacy in information and communications technologies (ICT).” GNI has posted a reaction to Clinton’s remarks on Internet freedom.

Secretary Clinton took questions from the audience after her speech.

A man from Libya asked wehether help would be available to defend against hackers who silence online media. Secretary Clinton said that tools would be developed collaboratively and deferred specific discussion for the panel.

One attendee wondered how young people, wired in a way they have never been before, can be engaged. Don’t panic over the hyperconnection of young people, said Secretary Clinton.” Find a way to utilize it.”

She closed by focusing again on the response recent disaster in Haiti, where a woman was rescued after the earthquake after sending a text message. “These networks took a voice that was buried & spread it to the world,” said Clinton.

Google, China and beyond

The timing of the speech could not be more apt, given the state of affairs that exists after Google’s announcement regarding ending censorship of its search engine in China, China.cn.

Today, more than 20 million people remain without Internet access in the Xinjiang region.

Reactions, perspectives and concerns emerge

Today’s speech on Internet freedom met with strong support from other federal agencies and electronic freedom advocates.

“Secretary Clinton’s inspiring remarks are a compelling argument for the power of Internet freedom to promote economic opportunity and the rights of all people,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

“The FCC has a rich history of promoting open and competitive telecommunications markets at home and abroad. I look forward to working with our government partners and the private sector to advance free communications markets and networks worldwide.”

Chris Messina, open Web advocate (and now Googler) offers his perspective from the stage at the Newseum. Video of the interview is embedded below:

The Center for Democracy & Technology released the following statement in response to Secretary of State Clinton’s major policy address on Internet freedom:

“We applaud Secretary Clinton for placing global Internet freedom at the heart of 21st century diplomacy,” said CDT President Leslie Harris. “This is a critical moment in the evolution of the Internet.  Authoritarian regimes are remaking the Internet into a tool of political control; meanwhile, democratic countries are struggling to manage old social ills in the new digital world,” Harris said. “The United States must take bold action to ensure that the global Internet remains a powerful force for democracy and human rights, Secretary Clinton’s speech is an historic first step toward that end.”

CDT Attorney Cynthia Wong added: “The free and open Internet is inexorably linked to the achievement of other major foreign policy goals, from protecting human rights to promoting democracy and economic empowerment. CDT looks forward to working with the State Department as it incorporates this new global Internet freedom objective into the fabric of American diplomacy worldwide.”

“Today’s speech exposes Hilary Clinton as a dyed in the wool cyberutopian… which is a good thing,” said Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices and research fellow at the Berkman Center, as quoted by the Index on Censorship. “Her description of the internet as a “new nervous system for the planet” reflects aspiration as much as reality and points to a thorough embrace of the potentials for this technology, even in the face of dangerous uses of the tools. I was gratified to see her root the idea of ‘freedom to connect,’ not just in American history and tradition, but in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to make clear that she saw the responsibility to protect these rights falling on international institutions, like the UN Human Rights Council.”

“I’d been somewhat concerned that her statement might propose a new slate of internet rights, which might have sparked debate about whether the US was trying to impose its norms of speech on a global network – making it clear that internet freedom is rooted in the UDHR as is not a novel set of rights was an excellent move on her part. The policy part of the speech didn’t have many surprises. There’s been support in different branches of the US government for years for censorship circumvention technologies, and the State Department had already announced their interest in online diplomacy. What was interesting was the idea that taking a stand against censorship should become part of the “American brand”. That, combined with the prominent mention of the Global Network Initiative, looked like a hearty endorsement of Google’s recent decision to change its China business practices, and a challenge to other US companies to reconsider how they engage with nations that censor the Internet.”

David Weinberger, Zuckerman’s colleague at the Berkman Center, offered his thoughts and reaction in the video below:

Evgeny Morozov, contributing editor to Foreign Policy, also offered first thoughts on a “cyber Cold War.”

I was taken aback by how much Cold War rhetoric she managed to work into it. Multiple references to 1989, fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the Information Iron Curtain (as Fridmanesque a metaphor as it gets). It’s as if the last twenty years and globalization did not happen. The view of authoritarianism that she articulated in the speech smacked of a memo written by a bunch of confused Kremlinologists. I guess no sane American politician would ever acknowledge that information could be the opium of the masses, but acting as if today’s Russians, Iranians or Chinese are totally cut off from information/travel/globalization is kind of silly. The very thought that authoritarianism can survive in the age of information abundance scares the bejesus out of American policy-makers, so they simply prefer to skirt it. I doubt that such self-denial would pay off in the long run.

2. The problem with such an anachronistic view of authoritarianism – which supposedly relies on a very rigorous system of censorship – is that it doesn’t explain countries likes Russia or Egypt, where there is technically very little censorship per se (I bet that Russian has less Internet censorship than Australia or the United Kingdom). Unfortunately, I didn’t hear anything about the evolving nature of Internet control (e.g. that controlling the Internet now includes many other activities – propaganda, DDoS attacks, physical intimidation of selected critics/activists). If we keep framing this discussion only as a censorship issue, we are unlikely to solve it.

3. Clinton was too soft on China, essentially granting them the right to censor whatever they’d like simply because they have “different views”. I doubt that would go well with the Republicans and others who have chided the White House for being too soft on human rights. Her remarks about the need to incorporate Internet freedom into CSR for American companies working in authoritarian countries are valid , but I doubt it would help to solve the problem:  local Chinese companies will simply fill in the gaps. Anti-censorship tools are not going to help either, because Chinese Internet companies delete content at its root (a point that Rebecca MacKinnon made during the panel).

4. Clinton’s remarks about the need to go after those who initiative cyber-attacks also puzzled me. She is probably unaware of the numerous campaigns launched by American hacktivists on the web-sites of the Iranian government. Will those be persecuted too? The US government really needs to develop and then adopt a more coherent view on the ethics of cyberwarfare; otherwise, the US State Dept will be accused of duplicity. We can’t be tolerating cyber-attacks in one context and criticizing them in another context (I wrote more about it here) [Read the rest of "cyber Cold War]

Panel parses the meaning of Internet freedom

Following Secretary Clinton’s speech, a panel of long-time analysts, activists and academics convened on stage.

Internet Freedom Panel at the Newseum

Internet Freedom Panel at the Newseum

“No amount of tools will help people access information when it’s been deleted by the private sector,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, Open Society Fellow, and future Visiting Fellow at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. “10 years ago, only a small number of countriues censored the Internet. Now it’s more than 40.”

The panel was moderated by , Anne-Marie Slaughter, Director of Policy Planning at the State Department. Panelists included:

Shirky, speaking to the disruptive impact of online networks on societies, said that “We overestimate the value of access to information. We underestimate the value of access to each other.” In describing what happened in Iran and elsehwere, he observed that “it’s been dubbed the Twitter revolution, but it’s plainly the cellphone revolution.” Shirky has written extensively on the potential for online social networks to change authoritarian governments, including a recent essay, “the net advantage.”

“Damaging the open Internet is now starting to be seen like polluting rivers,” said Mackinnon, describing a shift in expectations for corporate responsibility online.

The panel also brought up FreeGate, free anti-censorship software for Internet access in China or beyond.

Mackinnon emphasized that development of tools needn’t be U.S.-centric. “It’s not about Westerners giving tools to the oppressed masses,” she said. “There are great programmers in Africa. They need support.”

There’s a crucial current example of precisely that kind of innovation outside of Western computer science labs: the Ushahidi platform was developed in Kenya & adapted for Haiti: Haiti.ushahidi.com

The final question for the panel came from the Internet: What is the U.S. responsibility regarding freedom of expression in Iran?

“Our responsibility is to stand up, engage governments openly in this discussion,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter.

[When video of the panel is available, look for a link]

Questions remain, with foreign policy, online freedoms and trillions in investments in the balance

Ultimately, it won’t be words alone that changes how Internet freedom is defined, upheld or enforced. It will be governments working in concert with NGOs, private companies and citizens. Doc Searls warned that we must be careful, lest the Internet become a “Cinternet.” MacKinnon looked last week at whether China’s demands for Internet ‘self-discipline’ are spreading to the West, in the form of censorship driven by copyright concerns and regulated through intermediary liability.

Clinton’s speech will matter most if it is translated into policy, just as Google’s bold blog post will be hold water when it stops censoring China.cn.

For now, the U.S. Secretary of State has made a major policy address on Internet freedom that will reverberate throughout the rest of the year. In a world that grows more interconnected by the second, such attention was needed.

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