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Clinton's "Long Game" Advancing Internet Freedom

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While Bahrain careens and Egypt moves toward a new stasis, the debate over the shape and role of the Internet intensifies in different register and in different levels of abstraction.

An important forum for this global discussion is the Department of State and its vision for the Internet. There's now an incipient tradition: an annual Clinton Internet-celebrating speech given in the winter months. Secretary Clinton's George Washington University speech, given February 15, can best be understood by comparing it to the Internet speech she delivered, with great flourish and fanfare, a little more than one year earlier.

There was a big geopolitical difference. The 2010 speech was given, primarily, with an eye on China. This 2011 speech was set in the wake of Tunisia and Egypt and the roiling Middle East.

The 2011 speech sought -- nobly and romantically -- to emphasize the human aspects, not the mere technological ones, of great public actions that could alter history. This was a speech nominally about the Internet, but Secretary Clinton again and again talked about the power of people massing and demonstrating, not because of technology but merely aided by it. Brave individuals "stood and marched and chanted and the authorities tracked and blocked and arrested them. The Internet did not do any of these things; people did" (emphasis added).

There was a modesty to the speech that refined the most extensive global claims of its 2010 predecessor. The 2010 speech was called "Remarks on Internet Freedom." The 2011 speech put this freedom in context: it was on "Internet Rights and Wrongs: Choices and Challenges in Networked World." Things were and should be stated in a more complicated way.

The 2010 talk spoke about "one Internet" as a challenge to notions of state sovereignty. That formulation was a specific challenge to China with its emphasis on national sovereignty. The idea of "one Internet" was not so marked in the 2011 presentation. In the 2011 speech the Secretary put the United States on the "side of openness" in fighting for an Internet that would aid in fulfilling human rights. It was -- as it was last year -- a complicated balancing act to draw the boundaries of openness, especially during a time of WikiLeaks. This speech -- more rounded, more circumspect -- was only slightly defensive, still prescriptive and committed. The choice of the words "on the side of" openness seems accurate rather than hyperbolic.

At the end, consistent with a pragmatic theme, the Secretary moved to the practical and instrumental: "We realize that in order to be meaningful, online freedoms must carry over into real world activism."

A key paragraph:

While the rights we seek to protect and support are clear, the various ways that these rights are violated are increasingly complex. I know some have criticized us for not pouring funding into a signle technology. But we believe there is not a silver bullet in the struggle against internet repression. There is no app for that. Start working those of you out there. And accordingly, we are taking a comprehensive and innovative approach, one that matches our diplomacy with technology, secure distribution networks for tools, and direct support for those on the front lines.

Subtly, or maybe not so subtly, this paragraph alludes to an intense Beltway and beyond debate about how to split up $30 million appropriated by Congress to facilitate access to the Internet in repressive contexts with an emphasis on circumvention technologies. Here, implicit is defining the proper role of the United States in furthering an open Internet, in furthering the "right to connect" as Secretary Clinton tries to define it. The State Department seems to be working to find this spot -- what combination of strenuous activities advances Internet freedom. Implicit is that some interventions can be counterproductive.

Of course, it's an appealing idea to say that opening up the sluices of information will swiftly bring down dictators, and that's a plausible and welcome reading of events. But these events in Egypt and Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere are the result of many, many activities, inputs, efforts, discussions. Bullets, silver or otherwise, come by and large from the side of tyrants.

Mobilization, demonstration, action -- these, Secretary Clinton seems to conclude -- are the consequence of a system of approaches, not the easy pulling of an off/on switch.

The effort at State involves the sometimes exciting, sometimes duller work of attempting a myriad of activities, "supporting multiple tools," as Clinton put it. She mentioned connecting NGOs and advocates with technology and training, playing a role as "venture capitalist" for new technologies of freedom. What mix is the right one, what judgments help produce the great human acts of bravery and the shift to democratic realization -- that remains subject to the hard realities of day to day executive judgment.

Towards the end of her speech the secretary asserted -- at this time of toppled regimes, sudden changes, mercurial reputations and overnight transformations -- that "we are playing for the long game... progress [in Internet use] will be measured in years, not seconds. The course we chart today will determine whether those who follow us will get the chance to experience the freedom, security and prosperity of an open internet."

The long game is on, and the scores are already coming in.

A version of this appeared on the official blog site of the Index on Censorship.

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