Sec. Clinton’s Second Speech on Net Freedoms Stirs Debate
For the second time in little over a year, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered what was billed as a major address on the future of the Internet.
Her first speech, delivered Jan. 21, 2010 at Washington’s “Newseum“, was a watershed moment. In it, she compared government efforts to restrict or block parts of the Internet to “a new digital Iron curtain“, separating free nations from repressive ones. Unfettered access to an open web, she argued, would be considered by the Obama Administration as comparable to a basic human right: limit it, and be guilty of limiting inalienable human freedoms.
Recall at that time Google was involved in a very public fight with China over censorship – ending with Google’s virtual departure from the mainland. And it was only six months out from accounts and images of unrest in Iran – and the ugly suppression that leaked onto the web.
Still, in the year since “Internet freedom” has – perhaps to those at State – become a thornier issue. In instances such as the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the State Department was quick to extol the power of social media to inform, organize and to push governments deemed slow to reform.
However, as Josh Gerstein and Laura Rozen note in Politico:
“Critics say that as the United States calls for unfettered and uncensored access to the Internet around the globe, the Obama administration is stepping on its own message by aggressively pursuing a criminal investigation into the activities of online publisher WikiLeaks and how it obtained hundreds of thousands of classified American government reports.”
Tuesday’s speech by Ms. Clinton was an effort to address some of these, and other, issues, and hopefully move the topic of Internet freedom down the road apiece.
“The Internet has become the public space of the 21st century—the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house, and nightclub,” she said. “We all shape and are shaped by what happens there.” Calling social media like Twitter and Facebook “an accelerant” for civic change, Ms. Clinton laid out a road-map for the rights and rules of the web:
“This is a critical moment. The choices we make today will determine what the Internet looks like in the future. Businesses have to choose whether and how to enter markets where Internet freedom is limited. People have to choose how to act online—what information to share and with whom, which ideas to voice and how to voice them. Governments have to choose to live up to commitment to protect free expression, assembly, and association.
“For the United States, the choice is clear. On the spectrum of Internet freedom, we place ourselves on the side of openness. We recognize that an open Internet comes with challenges. It calls for ground-rules to protect against wrong-doing and harm. And Internet freedom raises tensions, like all freedoms do. But its benefits are worth it.”
Referring to what she called “the dictator’s dilemma” she argued tyrants who “double-down” on restricting the web only hurt their nations economically and politically in the long run; in part a reference to the economic hit Egypt took for temporarily erasing itself from the Internet.
That was an argument Ethan Zuckerman, blogger and co-founder of the media non-profit Global Voices, found “particularly encouraging.” However, he was “less sanguine” about Washington’s ability to open up the web while some US-based corporations were selling services to governments that help close it off:
“A year ago, I asked why Clinton didn’t put pressure on US corporations to work to make their content harder to block in closed societies. At the moment, I’d ask why Secretary Clinton didn’t challenge Facebook to rethink their real name policy – or at least their bad habit of deleting activist groups for inaccurate biographical information – in the wake of the use of that platform to push for change in Egypt. Her speech touched on the responsibility and power of US companies only in passing – I wish the speech had been a call to US companies to take a lead in ensuring their platforms can be used by people all over the world to push for social change.”
Another criticism of the State Department’s Internet activities is the charge by some that long-term Foreign Service officials, who may know much about diplomacy but less about the web in the words of State’s Alec Ross, chose certain strategies or partners over others – and not successfully. Witness the fallout from last year’s meltdown of Haystack.
In her speech, Secretary Clinton proposed $25 million to fund a variety of anti-circumvention technologies. “A pittance, really, in the massive federal budget,” wrote Spencer Ackerman in Wired’s “Danger Room” blog. Ackerman went on to note other anti-circumvention efforts already under way:
“The U.S. government is already involved in online circumvention. A panel assembled today by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, who oversee pro-U.S. broadcasts like the Voice of America in foreign countries, recounted the use of social media tools it propagates to allow foreign dissidents to evade censorship. Anti-censorship chief Ken Berman openly discussed setting up proxy websites in China and Iran to get blocked broadcasts past firewalls, and until recently, he set up multi-user Skype chats — which China didn’t censor — to plug people into the messages of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia.”
Worse are concerns that US activities may be regarded as little more than meddling in the private affairs of sovereign nations. Responding to a question from Russia during a live web-chat following the address, State Department Senior Adviser on Innovation Alec Ross shrugged:
“Our use of social media is not to encourage regime change. It’s about communication, not about overthrowing governments. It’s true Tunisians and Egyptians used some of these tools…to organize, communicate and share information…”
Another concern: that the Obama Administration has selected certain online partners to work with to promote greater openness online. Secretary Clinton worked to allay these concerns, saying the US would work with a wide range of partners and platforms to enhance Internet transparency. Noting the lack of a single “silver bullet” for a free web, she joked “…there’s no app for that.“ To chuckles in the audience she said in an aside, “…get to work on that.”
As to Wikileaks, Ms. Clinton asserted that the recent diplomatic cables published by Mr. Assange’s website – while reliably not commenting on the legitimacy of any of said cables – represented little more than theft:
“Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase. Some have suggested that this theft was justified because governments have a responsibility to conduct all of our work out in the open in the full view of our citizens. I respectfully disagree. The United States could neither provide for our citizens’ security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our efforts. Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise.”
True to the web, not everyone was convinced. “Digiphile” correspondent Alexander Howard, writing in the aggregator Huffington Post, opined:
“When Clinton placed responsibility upon the person responsible for the exfiltration of the data, as opposed to Wikileaks itself, she may have tacitly ceded that the networked world that we live in at present means that once information is shared, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to control its spread. That’s meaningful.”
Given the fluidity of events in the Middle East – and potentially elsewhere – this story has only begun to be written.
It’s a safe bet Mrs. Clinton will face renewed questioning on these policies later this week, when she testifies Thursday at a House subcommittee regarding the need to expand the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which requires phone companies and ISPs to provide wiretapped data at the government’s request.
You can watch VOA State Department correspondent David Gollust’s report on Mrs. Clinton’s speech below.