Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed a George Washington University audience on Tuesday, challenging world governments to keep the Internet open and free.
“Together, the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online comprise what I’ve called the freedom to connect. The United States supports this freedom for people everywhere, and we have called on other nations to do the same,” she stated.
Clinton cited recent events in Egypt when the government blocked Internet access, cut off cell phone use and jammed TV satellite signals for most of its population for four days. However, the protesters were not deterred and continued to organize themselves through flyers, dial up modems, faxes and word of mouth.
The Secretary emphasized the current debate over whether the Internet is a tool for liberation or oppression is mute. The protests happening around the world are about much more than the Internet. Individuals and whole societies are seeking basic human rights and freedoms and are frustrated with the conditions of their lives.
“So it is our values that cause these actions to inspire or outrage us, our sense of human dignity, the rights that flow from it, and the principles that ground it. And it is these values that ought to drive us to think about the road ahead,” she said. “Two billion people are now online, nearly a third of humankind. We hail from every corner of the world, live under every form of government, and subscribe to every system of beliefs. And increasingly, we are turning to the Internet to conduct important aspects of our lives.”
Clinton pointed to several global examples of governments attempting to block their citizens’ use of the Internet. China is known to redirect users to error pages and censor content. Independent news sites have been taken down in Burma and Cubans are not allowed worldwide Internet access. The Vietnamese and Iranian governments use the Internet to track down dissenters for punishment.
Choices made today concerning Internet use will determine its look in the future. Businesses, individuals, communities will have to decide whether to or not to engage in markets where Internet access is limited. They must choose how to what information to share and with whom and how they will act online.
But for the United States, there is only one clear choice.
“On the spectrum of Internet freedom, we place ourselves on the side of openness,” she underlined. “Now, we recognize that an open Internet comes with challenges. It calls for ground rules to protect against wrongdoing and harm. And Internet freedom raises tensions, like all freedoms do. But we believe the benefits far exceed the costs.”
Clinton addressed several of these challenges. First on her list was achieving the balance between liberty and security. “Finding this proper measure for the Internet is critical because the qualities that make the Internet a force for unprecedented progress – its openness, its leveling effect, its reach and speed – also enable wrongdoing on an unprecedented scale.”
She remained committed to tracking down criminals online and offline, but to do so within the framework of our laws and values. She questioned the assertion of some governments that they are seeking security with their new capacities to crack down on political dissidents.
“Those who clamp down on Internet freedom may be able to hold back the full expression of their people’s yearnings for a while, but not forever.”
The second challenge addressed by Clinton is protecting confidentiality while remaining transparent. Businesses, journalists and governments rely on confidential Internet communication to conduct their day to day affairs. As the connection technologies continue to grow and spread, guaranteeing such confidentiality will become increasingly difficult, though it must be maintained.
Clinton cited the recent WikiLeaks debate as an example of misunderstanding the need for confidentiality. Secretary Clinton argued, “Fundamentally, the WikiLeaks incident began with an act of 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.”
Clinton vehemently denied that the Obama Administration coerced private companies to deny service to WikiLeaks.
The third challenge addressed by Secretary Clinton: “protecting free expression while fostering tolerance and civility.” She admitted that the United States restricts certain kinds of speech according to law and U.S. international obligations, but she reminded her audience of the transparent enforcement of such laws and the right of appeal in the U.S.
“We urge our people to speak with civility, to recognize the power and reach that their words can have online,” Clinton stated. She added that even though these three challenges are difficult to balance all at once, they do not have to be a pick and choose option.
Some global communities such as China, Tunisia, and Syria have tried to set up walls on the Internet, which are meant to keep business and economic communication flowing while censoring or silencing social, political and social voices, she noted. Such practices, Clinton asserted, are unsustainable and that countries that practice Internet censorship will eventually be boxed in.
In a final challenge, she stated, “I urge countries everywhere instead to join us in the bet we have made, a bet that an open Internet will lead to stronger, more prosperous countries. At its core, it’s an extension of the bet that the United States has been making for more than 200 years, that open societies give rise to the most lasting progress, that the rule of law is the firmest foundation for justice and peace, and that innovation thrives where ideas of all kinds are aired and explored.”
The United States will continue efforts to sustain the Internet as an open, secure and reliable source of communication. Clinton said the Administration will complete in this year, an international strategy for cyberspace. “This is a foreign policy priority for us, one that will only increase in importance in the coming years.”