Internet Freedom and Cyber-Pragmatism

Today Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives a well-timed speech on Internet freedom. Surely she will—and should—cite the overthrow of authoritarian rulers in Tunisia and Egypt to argue that the Internet can facilitate sweeping social change. But she should also recommit the United States to a policy of supporting Internet freedom that gives content to the concept of the "freedom to connect" by ensuring that the universal freedoms of expression and association, and the right to privacy are protected. 

In recent months, there's been a growing chorus from "cyber-skeptics" questioning the value of the Internet to promote political freedoms.  At the same time, "cyber-utopians" point to the dramatic developments in Tunisia and Egypt as evidence that Twitter and Facebook will set the world free.  The truth is somewhere in between.  The Internet isn't a cause of social progress, but no one can deny that the Internet can be—and has been—a vital tool in the struggle for human rights and democracy.  The key is whether companies and governments assert themselves to insist that the Internet will be a tool to advance fundamental rights and freedoms.  Success will require sustained diplomatic energy, focused attention, and funding.  

Egypt's April 6 Youth Movement—born online in 2008 when more than 70,000 people came together to express solidarity with striking workers—used Facebook to organize the initial protests. You can't wage a revolution from your couch—you need to get out in the streets—but surely the connectedness Egyptians felt thanks to the Internet, as well as the large numbers they saw gathered there, stiffened their resolve. When your Facebook group has tens of thousands of supporters, you know you're onto something.

Another organizing fulcrum in Egypt was the "We Are all Khaled Said" Facebook page, named after an activist beaten to death by police. The page was created by a Wael Ghonim, a young Google executive who "disappeared" shortly after the protests erupted. He emerged after twelve days in state security detention and gave an emotional TV interview that gave the protests a surge of momentum.

No less important than the immediate organizing was all the online discussion over a number of years. The Internet was a place for young Egyptians to voice their frustrations about their government and share their dreams of changing it. In fact, as the New York Times recently reported, activists in Egypt and their counterparts in Tunisia have been gathering in cyberspace for many months to trade tips and war stories, and to talk about a way forward. 

In Tunisia, the spark for revolution was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, which ignited simmering anger over food prices, governmental corruption, and political repression. Yet many Tunisians learned the details of that corruption from WikiLeaks, and an attempt by the government to block WikiLeaks only intensified the protests. Facebook became the primary means by which Tunisians shared information about, and images of, the revolution. By January 8th, about two weeks into the uprising, Facebook had added several hundred thousand new subscribers in Tunisia.

But the "cyber-skeptics'" case against the Internet as a force for good includes a charge more serious than insignificance.  Governments can co-opt the Internet for their own repressive ends. On this point, they're correct. Under Mubarak, government spies went online to try to entrap activists in incriminating conversations as a pretext for their arrest. And last month in Tunisia, ISPs—presumably allied with the government—tried to collect Facebook users' private information. Facebook fought off this attack, demonstrating the critical role that tech companies can play in protecting Internet freedom and privacy.

As Secretary Clinton said last year in her landmark speech on Internet freedom, "[T]echnologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights." But this downside of the Internet only underscores why governments and technology companies should work to keep it free. The Internet, like all forms of media, is morally neutral. It is what we make it.

To help make the Internet what it should be, the Obama administration needs now to lay out specific policies and positions—and to put its money where its rhetoric is.

In her speech, Secretary Clinton should announce that the State Department is expanding its diplomatic efforts to push back on governments that restrict free expression on the Internet and support netizens around the world. She should also use the speech to discourage the export by American companies of technology—such as deep packet inspection—that empowers censorship by abusive regimes. 

Another important step would be to link U.S. trade and investment with efforts to promote Internet freedom. Secretary Clinton should announce that government trade reports on foreign countries will now include information on the state of Internet freedom.

In response to the uprising, the Egyptian government shut down the entire Internet. There seemed to be little resistance from ISPs, although what transpired between them and the regime remains a mystery. Secretary Clinton should call for transparency about the decisions made by companies in response to such requests by governments, so that the U.S. better understands the relationship between companies and governments, and take steps to increase the independence of ISPs. She should convene a CEO-level summit with company executives to discuss how their companies can advance freedom of expression and privacy on the Internet, in light of the challenges they face operating in repressive environments.

Finally, last year the U.S government's response to WikiLeaks' publication of classified State Department cables called into question its commitment to Internet freedom. Secretary Clinton should make clear that concerns about Wikileaks will not trump the government's responsibility to protect fundamental rights.

Events in Tunisia and Egypt should prompt increased focus on practical steps the government and companies can take to secure the Internet as a safe venue for  free expression.  The protestors in Tahrir Square were not demanding freedom to access their Facebook accounts.  They wanted political freedom.  But they used access to the Internet to get there. "Freedom is a bless[ing] that deserves fighting for it," Ghonim said upon his release from detention. He posted this on Twitter.