WASHINGTON -- The State Department has made Internet censorship a key pillar of its foreign policy and now factors the issue into its diplomatic relations with every other nation, a senior official from the department said on Friday.
In every meeting with foreign dignitaries, "this issue is on the table," Alec Ross, senior advisor for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said here at an event hosted by the Media Access Project, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy group.
"Internet freedom has gone from being something that's a piece of what could at best be called a piece of foreign policy arcanum -- a little thing that a handful of people work on -- to something becoming increasingly central in our foreign policy," Ross said.
The State Department has been elevating the profile of Internet censorship as a diplomatic priority since Clinton took over, but it wasn't until Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) made its revelations about a series of cyberattacks targeting Chinese human-rights activists that she spoke publicly about the issue in a major speech in January.
Ross said that while much of the media attention devoted to online censorship focuses on prominent countries like China and Iran, the issue is much broader and the State Department sees the situation getting worse.
"2009 was the worst year in history in terms of Internet freedom," he said. "There are now literally dozens of countries with less-than-stellar internet freedom records. And it's increasingly the case that governments view the Internet as less something built on a single end-user-to-end-user principle than something that can be sort of built to spec, that looks and feels and works more like an intranet than an Internet."
In addition to incorporating online censorship in its diplomatic work, the State Department is working actively to improve monitoring and reporting mechanisms to produce a more reliable picture of what types of content and services countries are blocking.
Further, the department is stepping up its support of grass-roots efforts in repressive countries advocating for Internet freedom or expressing dissident views in blogs and other online forums.
The State Department has also been working to revise U.S. trade policy with the Office of Foreign Asset Control, the division of the Treasury Department that administers economic sanctions. As a result, the trade sanctions against Cuba, Iran and Sudan have been relaxed to allow for the export of technology and telecommunications equipment while the embargo remains intact for other sectors of the economy.
"What we are doing is recognizing in authoritarian environments it is in our interest for technology, telecommunications to get into a country, because there is nothing more liberating within those countries than being able to access the tools that allow people to freely express themselves," Ross said, noting that those changes have helped to bring U.S. trade policy more in line with the State Department's rhetoric on Internet freedom.
"If we're going to say that the issue of online censorship is important, then our policies need to reflect that."