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America's Internet Freedom Agenda

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PALO ALTO -- When Hillary Clinton delivered her first major speech on Internet freedom in January 2010 little did she know about WikiLeaks and the yet-to-come revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Proclaiming Internet freedom to be a new priority for American foreign policy, Clinton provided scant details on how this new idealistic initiative would fit with its existing realpolitik foundations -- the ones that have often prized stability over liberty.

Clinton's follow-up speech, delivered on February 15th at George Washington University, was an effort to capitalize on the universal excitement about the role of social media in the recent events in the Middle East, correct some of the rhetorical excesses of the 2010 address, and try to reconcile the inherent contradictions of aspiring to export Internet freedom abroad while limiting it at home, with National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security seeking more oversight over cyberspace.

First, the good news. Gone is the Cold War-era view of the Internet as a faster and leaner network of fax machines on steroids. While Clinton's 2010 address was full of references to the "information curtain [that] is descending upon much of the world", to the Berlin Wall that is being replaced by "virtual walls", and to "viral videos and blog posts [that] are becoming the samizdat of our day", her most recent speech has avoided such banal cliches and historically inappropriate metaphors altogether.

Equally sobering was Clinton's acknowledgment that "there is no app" for solving the problem of Internet control. While it's important to continue investing in tools to circumvent censorship schemes of authoritarian governments, Internet filtering is just one of the many tools in their arsenal. Finding a way to protect independent publishers from cyber-attacks and other forms of online intimidation is equally important.

Another piece of good news is the State Department's reluctance to take a stand in the brewing debate of whether the Internet is a tool for liberation or oppression (Clinton characterized this debate as "largely beside the point"). Clearly, it's a tool for both; the degree to which it's liberating or oppressing often depends on the political and social context -- and not on the individual characteristics of a given Internet technology. It's reassuring to see Hillary Clinton strike a reasonable balance between cyber-utopianism and cyber-pessimism; adopting a cyber-realist posture and treating the Internet as it is (and not how we would like it to be) is the right way forward.

The bad news is that Clinton's speech is as important for the subjects that it has avoided. It's these omissions that tell us far more about the progress (or lack thereof) in how the US government thinks about a complex subject like Internet freedom.

Unfortunately, there was barely any mention of the role that America's own companies play in suppressing Internet freedom. Presumably, it's quite embarrassing for Hillary Clinton that Narus -- an American company now owned by Boeing -- supplied Egypt with technology that allowed it to spy on Internet users. Or that just two months ago the State Department gave an innovation award to another American company -- Cisco -- even though the latter provided some of the key ingredients for China's draconian system of Web controls.

Then, there is the thorny issue of our growing dependence on companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google as the providers of digital infrastructure that makes cyber-activism possible. Clinton was right to acknowledge that the Internet is "the public space of the 21st century" -- but today this space feels and looks more like a shopping mall than a community playground.

The striking impression one gets from watching the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia is that these revolts happened not because of Facebook, Twitter and Google -- but in spite of them. While their services were widely used by activists on the ground, the parent companies have been extremely quiet. And for a good reason: they all have global business interests and eye expansion abroad. Being seen as the digital equivalents of The Voice of America is bound to create additional liabilities for them in important markets like Russia or China.

We shouldn't expect these companies to always err on the side of protesters but we should nudge them to behave more responsibly. For example, it's not very helpful for the US government to provide activists with tools to access the Web anonymously if they can't use services like Facebook using pseudonyms. Facebook's tough stance on pseudonyms often leads to rather curious situations: in December 2010 Facebook temporarily suspended the account of the Russian jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, demanding that he present them with a scanned copy of his passport -- perhaps, not an easy thing to email from a Siberian prison.

And yet the toughest unacknowledged challenge to the future of the "Internet Freedom Agenda" may come from within the US government. While it's wonderful that so many young activists can use the Web for protest, the reality is that in all too many cases they will be using it to fight against the very dictators that the US has supported for decades. As such, Washington will often find itself in a rather unpleasant position of training Arab bloggers to oppose the local police forces that Washington itself has armed and trained.

One would need to be extremely naïve to believe that the US-made social networks will always be mightier than the U.S.-made swords. At worst, the State Department may be feeding these youthful activists the false hopes that their grievances will take precedence over the grievances of the pro-US dictators that Washington supports. Clearly, the right thing to do is not to stop supporting cyber-activists but to stop supporting their opponents.

The danger here is that Washington's noble and idealistic push to promote Internet freedom may serve as yet another excuse not to reexamine and correct the deeply cynical realpolitik foundations of U.S. foreign policy.

Evgeny Morozov, currently a fellow at Stanford University, is author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom

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