When it comes to education and how students learn in the 21st century, when it comes to developing businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship in a flattening digital marketplace, when it comes to forming social connections regardless of geographic, linguistic and cultural borders -- when it comes to promoting democracy and protecting the rights of individuals around the world -- no two words, no other phrase, holds more value. It may sound trite but it's true -- just ask students and activists in Iran and China. With the Internet comes freedom. With freedom comes the Internet. In countless ways, for many people, the Internet is freedom.
Hillary Clinton underlined that reality in a bold, impassioned speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. this morning. Words like "bold" and "impassioned" are not usually found in most of the mainstream media's caricature of Clinton. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State gave by far the most important speech about Internet freedom delivered by a top U.S. official. What makes it all the more notable is the fact that it was given by arguably the most recognizable female political figure in the world. In parts of the Middle East, women are beaten and killed by relatives who find out they are using sites like Twitter and Facebook. "Honor" beatings, they're called.
"Given the magnitude of the challenges we're facing, we need people around the world to pool their knowledge and creativity to help rebuild the global economy, protect our environment, defeat violent extremism and build a future in which every human being can realize their God-given potential," said Clinton, who announced a new $15 million project to help more women, young people and citizen groups to get online. (WATCH: Video of her speech is below.)
Clinton, speaking in broad strokes and finer details, outlined what she called the "five key freedoms of the Internet age." Freedom to connect online anywhere. Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom from fear of cyber attacks. "In an interconnected world," she said, "an attack on one nation's networks can be an attack on all." Freedom of "want" -- which means that the here-comes-everybody ethos of the Web, the fact that we can bear witness to each other online, can be leveraged in helping relieve suffering worldwide.
On the Twitterverse, where Internet observers and activists commented on Clinton's remarks and her subsequent Q&A in real time, some took note of her "disappointing" answers regarding China's alleged cyber attacks targeted at human rights activists. And inevitably, immediate coverage of the speech in our conflict-driven mainstream media, from the New York Times to the Associated Press, focused on the China-Google dispute, which is being closely watched by human rights activists, government officials and Internet companies. But the overall meaning and message of her remarks, beyond the China-Google stand-off, cannot be overstated. The Internet, after all, was born in America, created by our researches and funded by our government. With help and input from other countries, the Web's evolving ethos and guiding principles should be shaped by America -- and, naturally, by America's top diplomat.
"Sec. Clinton once and for all established the fact that free speech and free enterprise can no longer be achieved unless we have Internet freedom," Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference on technology's impact on politics and policy, told me shortly after Clinton's remarks. He called her speech nothing short of a "milestone" in the future of American foreign policy. "
"In a world where billions are connected with each other through technology -- through the Internet and mobile phones -- it is imperative that governments recognize that it's easier and faster for people to connect with each other than for governments to connect with their citizens. Any government that fails to understand this dynamic will left in the history books," Rasiej continued."
Less than two weeks ago, Clinton hosted a nearly two-hour dinner for some of the tech industry's leading thinkers and innovators. It was a small, intimate affair, and guests included Twitter creator Jack Dorsey, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Howcast CEO and co-founder Jason Liebman, who wrote about the event for HuffPostTech in a blog titled "Facebook, YouTube and Twitter Are Tools For Diplomacy." Rasiej was one of the guests. Clinton is interested in how technology can spur innovation within the State Department and in countries that the U.S. has interest in supporting, Rasiej said. Accompanying Clinton in the dinner was her senior staff and her growing new media department; most recently, Katie Jacobs Stanton, a former Google exec who joined the White House as its director of citizen participation, joined the State Department.
There's a bit of irony at work here. Early in the long, bruising primary campaign that pitted the establishment-backed former first lady turned New York senator against the little-known insurgent junior senator from Illinois, Clinton was considered less Web-savvy than Barack Obama. Hers was a top-down, command-and-control operation, online observers suggested. In fact, the first online attack ad that spread on YouTube and foreshadowed the narrative of their historic fight for the Democratic nomination portrayed Clinton as the old PC and Obama as the shiny new Mac.
"After having lost to Obama, especially to Obama's use of the Internet in attracting and mobilizing supporters," Rasiej pointed out, "Clinton is now leading the way within the Obama administration in recognizing the transformational opportunities that the Internet can provide."
Using DipNote, the State Department's blog, recording videos from all corners of the world, especially where girls and women are considered second-class citizens, leveraging technological tools that, as we're seeing in the response and outpouring of support for Haiti, allow us to become "global citizens," Clinton can be the Web's first global diplomat.
Here's the video of the speech, courtesy of the State Department, where you can also find the entire transcript of Clinton's remarks:
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