Hillary Clinton's Evolving Take On 'Internet Freedom'

As noted over at Raw Story, Clinton's response to WikiLeaks deviates from the take on Internet freedom that she offered in January, when she compared an open Internet to the cornerstones of FDR's "Four Freedoms."

In a November 29 press conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blasted WikiLeaks for its disclosure of confidential diplomatic cables. Putting distance between actual policy decisions and the private conversations that were made public by WikiLeaks' cable dump, she promised to take "aggressive steps" against those who had disseminated the information. She went on to distinguish the WikiLeaks disclosure from other "examples in history" that brought to light "wrongdoings or misdeeds":


CLINTON: Now, I'm aware that some may mistakenly applaud those responsible. So I want to set the record straight: There is nothing laudable about endangering innocent people, and there is nothing brave about sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations on which our common security depends. There have been examples in history in which official conduct has been made public in the name of exposing wrongdoings or misdeeds. This is not one of those cases.

As noted over at Raw Story, Clinton's response to WikiLeaks deviates from a rather sunny take on Internet freedom that she offered at the Newseum back in January. In that speech, she described an emerging "global community" empowered by the transparency and quick dissemination of information the Internet allows. Comparing an open Internet to the cornerstones of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms," she suggested it could be an important tool in cracking corrupt, autocratic regimes.

You should go read the whole speech, but a couple of moments are worth highlighting. Here's how Clinton captured the downside to the free exchange of information online:

But amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns and nuclear energy can power a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or ill. The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable al-Qaeda to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent. And technologies 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.

Clinton also discussed the potentially disruptive effects that the Internet could have on the State Department:

We are well placed to seize the opportunities that come with interconnectivity. And as the birthplace for so many of these technologies, we have a responsibility to see them used for good. To do that, we need to develop our capacity for 21st century statecraft.

Realigning our policies and our priorities won't be easy. But adjusting to new technology rarely is. When the telegraph was introduced, it was a source of great anxiety for many in the diplomatic community, where the prospect of receiving daily instructions from Washington was not entirely welcome. But just as our diplomats eventually mastered the telegraph, I have supreme confidence that the world can harness the potential of these new tools as well.

The most generous take on the matter is to say that circa January of this year, Clinton hadn't yet imagined how an organization like WikiLeaks might fit into this overall philosophy. But one could also argue that by condemning WikiLeaks, Clinton merely sets new definitions of what constitutes "Internet freedom" in the wake of finding herself on the wrong side of the transparency window. Clinton did, in her Newseum speech, seem to suggest information disclosure has parameters:

We need to put these tools in the hands of people around the world who will use them to advance democracy and human rights, fight climate change and epidemics, build global support for President Obama's goal of a world without nuclear weapons and encourage sustainable economic development.

And if you want to bring down the Iranian regime on Twitter, that would be fine, too. I guess the State Department's revised take on the matter boils down to "but don't touch my junk."

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