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Alexander Howard

Alexander Howard

Posted: February 15, 2011 04:46 PM

A year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made unrestricted open Internet access a top foreign policy priority for the United States. In the months since, much has changed in the warp and weft of the the online world, including the expansion of Wikileaks into a global phenomenon and the historic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Today in Washington, Secretary Clinton took the podium again to talk about Internet freedom in a networked world. "The Internet has become the public space of the 21st century--the world's town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house, and nightclub," said Clinton. "We all shape and are shaped by what happens there. All two billion of us and counting."

In what amounted to a State of the Internet address, Clinton effectively doubled down on the policy that she'd delineated in 2010, extending the notion that the ideals that underpin the American Constitution extend online. "The rights of individuals to express their views freely, petition their leaders, worship according to their beliefs--these rights are universal, whether they are exercised in a public square or on an individual blog. The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace; in our time, people are as likely to come together to pursue common interests online as in a church or union hall. Together, the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online comprise what I have 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. " (Clinton's full remarks, as prepared by delivery, are embedded at the end of the article.) Video of her speech is below:

"The Secretary of State presented a cogent, clear affirmation of the importance of maintaining a free and open Internet," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, in a prepared statement.

"In the wake of recent events--the employment of an Internet 'kill switch' by Egyptian authorities and the harnessing of social media by democracy advocates in the Middle East--she showed a nuanced understanding of the Internet and strongly embraced a medium that can be unpredictable and at times at odds with government aims," Harris said. "Even as the WikiLeaks controversy continues to unfold, Clinton made clear that the State Department stands with the Internet. Secretary Clinton set a powerful example that should be heeded by world leaders as well as our policymakers here at home."

Clinton's senior adviser for innovation, Alec J. Ross, joined Dan Baer in a live webchat after the speech to take questions on Internet freedom from a global online audience. "At the end of the day the actual rights framework isn't just years old, or decades old, but centuries old," observed Ross, pointing to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other connection technologies. In that context, Internet freedom "represents old values applied to new technologies," he said.

Should the U.S. support Internet freedom through technology? Clinton (and Congress) have made a commitment to fund applications that support the State Department's policy, including circumvention tools, anonymizers, and other technological means to enable people in autocratic societies to connect to the global Internet with more safety. The State Department has taken what Clinton called a "venture capital-style approach, supporting a portfolio of technologies, tools, and training, and adapting as more users shift to mobile devices." The State Department has now given out some $20 million in competitive grants, with $25 million in additional funding coming this year.

Clinton also acknowledged today that "social networking sites aren't only places where friends share photos; they also share political views and build support for social causes, or reach out to professional contacts to collaborate on a new business deal." As the role of the Internet for collective action grows, that connectivity in turn can be more important to offline events, as the world saw in Egypt this month.

Blocking unfettered access to the global Internet will, said Clinton, create a "dictator's dilemma," where the leaders of repressive regimes will have "to choose between letting the walls fall or paying the price to keep them standing--which means both doubling down on a losing hand by resorting to greater oppression, and enduring the escalating opportunity cost of missing out on the ideas that have been blocked."

As Clinton acknowledged in her speech today, however, complexities abound in this Internet freedom policy. As Bruce Gottlieb pointed out in the Atlantic Monthly in his analysis of Clinton's Internet freedom policy, "Clinton's speech is, as much as anything, a warning that if America is going to talk the talk about censorship abroad, we have to walk the walk at home, as well. This is the sense in which her speech is a genuine (and almost certainly self-conscious) act of courage -- reminding us that, as always, the most important political choices we can make begin at home."

Those choices, particularly around censorship, press shield laws, intellectual property laws, electronic privacy and government surveillance, are often not congruent with the Internet freedom that Clinton describes globally. As Rebecca MacKinnon explains below, these extend to consideration of electronic wiretapping through the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) or the actions of the intelligence agencies abroad.

More on Clinton's response to Wikileaks after the jump.


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