Offering the Obama administration’s most forceful statement yet on the issue of Internet freedom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday appealed to the international community to reject online surveillance, censorship and other restrictions on the “town square” of the 21st century.
In a speech at George Washington University, Clinton warned that governments that attempt to stifle free expression on the Web will land on the wrong side of history, and pledged to ramp up U.S. resources to support groups around the world working to keep digital platforms open in countries under the thumb of repressive regimes.
“We believe that governments who have erected barriers to Internet freedom, whether they’re technical filters, or censorship regimes, or attacks on those who exercise their rights to expression and assembly online, will eventually find themselves boxed in. They will face a dictator’s dilemma, and will have to choose between letting the walls fall, or paying the price to keep them standing,” Clinton said.
“I urge countries everywhere instead to join us in the bet we have made, a bet than an open Internet will lead to stronger, more prosperous countries.”
Clinton weighed in on the issue of global Internet freedom last January following Google’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) revelations of a wave of cyberattacks emanating from China, when the company vowed to stop complying with that country’s censorship requirements.
In the time since, the State Department has been formulating a policy that Clinton today said must address the duality inherent in the Internet — that it can at serve as a tool for free expression and a facilitator of civil protest, while at the same time giving governments a new set of tools to conduct digital surveillance and track and arrest dissident groups.
“There is a debate currently underway in some circles about whether the Internet is a force for liberation or repression. But I think that debate is largely beside the point,” Clinton said, noting that recent flare-ups in Egypt, Iran and other nations have seen protesters and government authorities alike use a new set of communication technologies, but only as an extension of their primary political and social missions.
“Egypt isn’t inspiring people because they communicated using Twitter. It is inspiring because people came together and persisted in demanding a better future. Iran isn’t awful because the authorities used Facebook to shadow and capture members of the opposition. Iran is awful because it is a government that routinely violates the rights of its people,” she said.
Over the past three years, Clinton said the government has allocated $20 million in competitive grants to activist groups and technologists to develop tools for getting around Internet filters and avoiding surveillance in repressive regimes. This year alone, she said the United States plans to ramp up support for those groups with $25 million in funding.
Last week, the State Department launched Twitter feeds in Farsi and Arabic as a tool to engage with dissident groups in the Middle East. The department is planning to add feeds in Chinese, Russian and Hindi.
“Monitoring and responding to threats to Internet freedom has become part of the daily work of our diplomats and development experts,” Clinton said.
She said that the administration plans to complete a comprehensive review of its international cyber strategy this year, addressing global security and economic concerns, along with the State Department’s diplomacy work. To help coordinate policy both within State and across other agencies, Clinton has established the office of a coordinator for cyber issues, headed by Christopher Painter, who most recently served as the senior director for cybersecurity in the National Security Council.
While the intricacies of censorship and repression vary widely in many of the countries Clinton referenced, including China, Cuba and Vietnam, she described the State Department’s approach as working broadly to address fundamental challenges that governments contend with in their Internet policies, such as the perceived friction between liberty and security. Too often, Clinton warned, repressive regimes squelch political dissent by arresting or harassing bloggers or other dissidents in the name of security. At the same time, she reiterated a commitment to coordinate with foreign governments and law enforcement agencies to track down criminals or terrorist groups operating on the Web.
Discussing another challenge, the tension between transparency and confidentiality, Clinton defended the U.S. response to the publication of leaked diplomatic cables on Wikileaks, arguing that governments, like businesses, of necessity keep some information out of the public eye. The view advocated by Wikileaks and its sympathizers that secrecy and transparency are fundamentally incompatible is a “false choice,” she argued.
Moreover, she noted that the origin of the leaked diplomatic cables owed to an “act of theft,” referring to the Army private who allegedly stole electronic copies of the documents and passed them on to Wikileaks for publication. That act, she said, fundamentally was no different than if paper copies of the same documents had been smuggled out of an office in a briefcase.
“The existence of connection technologies may make it hard to maintain confidentiality, but it does not alter the need for it,” she said.
Clinton also flatly denied that the administration had coerced any private company into severing ties to Wikileaks, as has been widely reported. She said that the public comments of lawmakers such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Vt.), who launched a probe into Wikileaks’ commercial support and pressed Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) for details about the cloud-computing services it provided the whisteblower site, were not to be mistaken for administration policy.
Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.