This is how it happens.
An organization publishes information on the Internet that's embarrassing and arguably harmful to the government. Citing an alleged threat to national security, the government pressures companies to deny access to the information and to choke off the organization's funding. The companies acquiesce.
This how we begin to lose our Internet freedom.
WikiLeaks's decision to publish classified State Department cables has triggered justified concerns about the safety of innocent people. Prior to the publication of the cables, I wrote to Julian Assange urging him to do everything he could to protect human rights activists. (So far it appears that Wikileaks has taken care to redact the names of activists where their exposure would put them at risk.) And now the response of the government and business executives to the release of the cables is triggering justified concerns about the openness of the Internet.
This issue transcends the particulars of the WikiLeaks case. No matter what you think of Julian Assange, anyone who cares about Internet freedom should be concerned that in its zeal to cripple Wikileaks, governments and companies are taking steps in this case that pose a threat to fundamental rights.
The Obama Administration has been a vocal champion of Internet freedom. In a landmark speech earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton couldn't have been more eloquent or clear in explaining why Internet freedom is a crucial human rights issue. The "freedom to connect," she said, is a "Fifth Freedom," no less important than the Four Freedoms cited by President Roosevelt 70 years ago. But, she warned, "[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."
Secretary Clinton regularly urges corporate entities not to restrict access to information on the Internet. As do we. Human Rights First is part of the Global Network Initiative (GNI), which brings together human rights groups, academics, investors, and some of the world's largest technology companies in an effort protect Internet freedom. We helped to form the GNI because repressive governments try to enlist businesses in their efforts to restrict Internet freedom, offering them access to markets and applying political pressure.
Pressure to restrict information is no less troubling when it comes from the U.S. government. And companies shouldn't be any more willing to acquiesce. After Senator Joe Lieberman, Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, called on companies to boycott Amazon, and his office contacted the online giant, Amazon quickly dropped WikiLeaks from its servers. I wrote a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos urging him to explain publicly which parts of the U.S government had contacted Amazon and to detail the process that had led to the company's decision.
Bezos didn't respond, and his subsequent statements left key questions unanswered. There's no such ambiguity in the case of PayPal, which acknowledges that it decided to stop processing payments to WikiLeaks in light of the U.S. State Department's position. Visa and Mastercard have also stopped processing these payments. However, other companies like Twitter have so far resisted this pressure, and we encourage them to continue waiting until all the facts have been determined before preemptively shutting down the conversation.
Companies have the right to make business decisions, but they shouldn't become proxy censors or otherwise help the government restrict Internet freedom -- at least not without an extremely compelling reason to do so. Given the stakes, companies should have clear and transparent policies for decision-making when governments request them to censor information on the web, and these policies should be weighted heavily on the side of preserving Internet freedom and the Internet itself, which, after all, gives them their livelihood. (Or in the case of a company like Visa, a lucrative source of income.)
In many countries where there is no independent media and civil society groups are under threat, the only public square open to dissenting voices -- for exposing government abuses, sharing information, and organizing -- is the virtual public square. We must be vigilant in ensuring that the furor over WikiLeaks does not establish a norm that these repressive countries would welcome and seek to universalize.
Because a threat to Internet freedom in one place is a threat to Internet freedom everywhere, it is also a threat to the companies themselves. As Hillary Clinton pointed out in her speech, it's in both the moral and financial interests of companies to protect Internet freedom: "[C]ensorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. And in America, American companies need to make a principled stand. This needs to be part of our national brand. I'm confident that consumers worldwide will reward companies that follow those principles."
The credibility of the United States is at stake. Under the Obama Administration, the country has been a worldwide leader on Internet freedom. But a gap is now emerging between what we practice and what we preach. Countries around the world will be less likely to listen to calls by the United States to keep the Internet open when the U.S. itself pressures companies to restrict Internet freedom. Companies, having acquiesced to pressure from the United States government, will see little reason not to acquiesce to pressure from foreign governments.
And it's people living under repression who will pay the severest price, people for whom the Internet is a lifeline, an essential tool to open up closed societies. Iryna Vidanyava, an activist fighting for free speech in her native Belarus, has called information technology companies "the last resort of freedom," and urged them to consider that, for human rights activists, Internet freedom is not just about business, it's about life.
Follow Elisa Massimino on Twitter: www.twitter.com/humanrights1st