Secretary Clinton Doubles Down on Internet Freedom at the State Department

Clinton may not have broken a great deal of new ground in her speech at George Washington University, but she did explore protecting free expression while encouraging online civility.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

A year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made unrestricted open Internet access a top foreign policy priority for the United States. In the months since, much has changed in the warp and weft of the the online world, including the expansion of Wikileaks into a global phenomenon and the historic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Today in Washington, Secretary Clinton took the podium again to talk about Internet freedom in a networked world. "The Internet has become the public space of the 21st century--the world's town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house, and nightclub," said Clinton. "We all shape and are shaped by what happens there. All two billion of us and counting."

In what amounted to a State of the Internet address, Clinton effectively doubled down on the policy that she'd delineated in 2010, extending the notion that the ideals that underpin the American Constitution extend online. "The rights of individuals to express their views freely, petition their leaders, worship according to their beliefs--these rights are universal, whether they are exercised in a public square or on an individual blog. The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace; in our time, people are as likely to come together to pursue common interests online as in a church or union hall. Together, the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online comprise what I have called the freedom to connect. The United States supports this freedom for people everywhere, and we have called on other nations to do the same. " (Clinton's full remarks, as prepared by delivery, are embedded at the end of the article.) Video of her speech is below:

"The Secretary of State presented a cogent, clear affirmation of the importance of maintaining a free and open Internet," said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, in a prepared statement.

"In the wake of recent events--the employment of an Internet 'kill switch' by Egyptian authorities and the harnessing of social media by democracy advocates in the Middle East--she showed a nuanced understanding of the Internet and strongly embraced a medium that can be unpredictable and at times at odds with government aims," Harris said. "Even as the WikiLeaks controversy continues to unfold, Clinton made clear that the State Department stands with the Internet. Secretary Clinton set a powerful example that should be heeded by world leaders as well as our policymakers here at home."

Clinton's senior adviser for innovation, Alec J. Ross, joined Dan Baer in a live webchat after the speech to take questions on Internet freedom from a global online audience. "At the end of the day the actual rights framework isn't just years old, or decades old, but centuries old," observed Ross, pointing to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other connection technologies. In that context, Internet freedom "represents old values applied to new technologies," he said.

Should the U.S. support Internet freedom through technology? Clinton (and Congress) have made a commitment to fund applications that support the State Department's policy, including circumvention tools, anonymizers, and other technological means to enable people in autocratic societies to connect to the global Internet with more safety. The State Department has taken what Clinton called a "venture capital-style approach, supporting a portfolio of technologies, tools, and training, and adapting as more users shift to mobile devices." The State Department has now given out some $20 million in competitive grants, with $25 million in additional funding coming this year.

Clinton also acknowledged today that "social networking sites aren't only places where friends share photos; they also share political views and build support for social causes, or reach out to professional contacts to collaborate on a new business deal." As the role of the Internet for collective action grows, that connectivity in turn can be more important to offline events, as the world saw in Egypt this month.

Blocking unfettered access to the global Internet will, said Clinton, create a "dictator's dilemma," where the leaders of repressive regimes will have "to choose between letting the walls fall or paying the price to keep them standing--which means both doubling down on a losing hand by resorting to greater oppression, and enduring the escalating opportunity cost of missing out on the ideas that have been blocked."

As Clinton acknowledged in her speech today, however, complexities abound in this Internet freedom policy. As Bruce Gottlieb pointed out in the Atlantic Monthly in his analysis of Clinton's Internet freedom policy, "Clinton's speech is, as much as anything, a warning that if America is going to talk the talk about censorship abroad, we have to walk the walk at home, as well. This is the sense in which her speech is a genuine (and almost certainly self-conscious) act of courage -- reminding us that, as always, the most important political choices we can make begin at home."

Those choices, particularly around censorship, press shield laws, intellectual property laws, electronic privacy and government surveillance, are often not congruent with the Internet freedom that Clinton describes globally. As Rebecca MacKinnon explains below, these extend to consideration of electronic wiretapping through the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) or the actions of the intelligence agencies abroad.

More on Clinton's response to Wikileaks after the jump.

Addressing Wikileaks

Before the uprisings that continue to shake the established power structure of the Arabic world, Clinton's speech would have been considered nearly wholly in response to the issue of Wikileaks and "Cablegate," where thousands of diplomatic cables were exfiltrated from the State Department and distributed into hundreds of servers.

Clinton addressed the issue of Wikileaks directly in her prepared remarks:

Government confidentiality has been a topic of debate during the past few months because of Wikileaks. It's been a false debate in many ways. Fundamentally, the Wikileaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase.

Some have suggested that this act was justified, because governments have a responsibility to conduct all of their work out in the open, in the full view of their citizens.

I disagree. The United States could neither provide for our citizens' security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our most sensitive operations.

Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise. Consider our work with former Soviet states to secure loose nuclear material. By keeping the details confidential, we make it less likely that terrorists will find the nuclear material and steal it.

Or consider the content of the documents that Wikileaks made public. Without commenting on the authenticity of any particular documents, we can observe that many of the cables released by Wikileaks relate to human rights work carried out around the world. Our diplomats closely collaborate with activists, journalists, and citizens to challenge the misdeeds of oppressive governments. It's dangerous work. By publishing the diplomatic cables, Wikileaks exposed people to even greater risk.

For operations like these, confidentiality is essential, especially in the Internet age, when dangerous information can be sent around the world with the click of a keystroke.

Of course, governments also have a duty to be transparent. We govern with the consent of the people, and that consent must be informed to be meaningful. So we must be judicious about when we close off our work to the public and review our standards frequently to make sure they are rigorous. In the United States, we have laws to ensure that the government makes its work open to the people. The Obama Administration has also launched unprecedented initiatives to put government data online, encourage citizen participation, and generally increase the openness of government.

The U.S. government's ability to protect America... to secure the liberties of our people... and to support the rights and freedoms of others around the world depends on maintaining a balance between what's public and what should remain out of the public domain. The scale will always be tipped in favor of openness. But tipping the scale over completely serves no one's interests--and the public's least of all.

Let me be clear. I said that we would have denounced Wikileaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase. The fact that Wikileaks used the Internet is not the reason we criticized it. Wikileaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom.

One final word on this matter. There were reports in the days following the leak that the U.S. government intervened to coerce private companies to deny service to Wikileaks. This is not the case. Some politicians and pundits publicly called for companies to dissociate from Wikileaks, while others criticized them for doing so. Public officials are part of our country's public debates, but there is a line between expressing views and coercing conduct. But any business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own policies regarding Wikileaks was not at the direction or the suggestion of the Obama Administration.

This statement will not satisfy some critics, particularly given the ongoing criminal investigation of Wikileaks by the United States Justice Department, but it does reassert her belief in the right of her agency to retain confidentiality as a condition for effective international diplomacy and effectively distances the State Department from the action of Senator Lieberman, who reportedly put pressure on Amazon to stop hosting Wikileaks in the wake of Cablegate.

When Clinton placed responsibility upon the person responsible for the exfiltration of the data, as opposed to Wikileaks itself, she may have tacitly ceded that the networked world that we live in at present means that once information is shared, it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to control its spread. That's meaningful.

"The Wikileaks debate isn't about the Internet, per se," said Ben Scott, policy adviser for innovation at the State Department, speaking in an interview today. "It's a continuation of an old debate about the proper balance between transparency and confidentiality in government. The Internet's role is that it's now possible to duplicate and transmit information in a way that's never been possible before. It's about how information is transmitted and shared in a networked society."

Clinton was clear in applying a core freedom from the Bill of Rights to the online realm: "As it has historically been proven time and time again, the best answer to offensive speech is more speech," she said. "We protect free speech with the force of law, and we appeal to the force of reason to win out over hate."

As Ethan Zuckerman, of Harvard's Berkman Center, observed last year, however, the challenge in the context of Internet freedom is that the online civic discourse in Clinton's 21st century town square is being hosted by commercial entities, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Amazon or numerous Internet service providers.

When Wael Ghonim set up a Facebook page in Egypt, in other words, he was depending upon Facebook's administrators not to take the page down. That choice was meaningful, given the role Facebook appears to have played in accelerating the revolution in Egypt. "If there was no social networks, it would have never been sparked," said Ghonim. "Because the whole thing before the revolution was the most critical thing. Without Facebook, without Twitter, without Google, without YouTube, this would have never happened."

Given that Clinton began her speech with a discussion of what happened in Egypt when the Internet when down, that perspective may be on the minds of diplomats in Foggy Bottom and dozens of embassies abroad as well.

The impact of the Internet is still in its infancy, in some respect, governments of all kinds elsewhere are challenged by the disruption of connection technologies. "We've become accustomed to a society where the vast number of people are connected, especially with cellphones. In a lot of countries, they're just starting to get to a critical mass," said Scott. A lot of the challenges around identity, privacy and anonymity that the United States government been facing for years are now occurring in developing countries.

Given the global sweep of the Internet's reach in 2011 (and the State Department's portfolio) this speech reached deeply into the state of the way we live now. Reactions, both positive and negative, will be coming in for days. Ethan Zuckerman posted a reaction to Secretary Clinton's Internet freedom speech on his blog:

While I thought framing questions about the future of the internet in terms of tensions - security versus liberty, transparency versus confidentiality, expression versus civility - was wise, I didn't find her answers regarding Wikileaks especially convincing. As friends at Berkman pointed out in reaction to her speech, Wikileaks didn't steal those cables. They acted as a journalistic organization in publishing that leaked material. And while it's good to know that it wasn't official Obama administration policy to pressure companies not to do business with Wikileaks, but it doesn't change the fact that US corporations cut vital services to Wikileaks under what they perceived to be US government pressure. I was glad she tackled the question head on instead of skirting it, even though I found the "it's not Wikileaks, it's theft we don't like" explanation unpalatable.

I was particularly encouraged to see Secretary Clinton addressing the "dictator's dilemma", the difficulty of using the internet as a tool for economic growth and entertainment without enabling the internet for activist purposes. I wish I were as sanguine as she in offering this formulation: "Walls that divide the Internet - that block political content, ban broad categories of expression, allow certain forms of peaceful assembly but prohibit others, or intimidate people from expressing their ideas- are far easier to erect than they are to maintain. Not just because people find ways around them and through them, but because there isn't an economic internet and a social internet and apolitical internet - there's just the internet."

Those walls are hard to maintain, true, but they're lots easier to maintain with the help of the (mostly US-based) companies that host large fractions of the Internet's traffic. What should YouTube do when a video they host violates local law in Turkey or Thailand? If they do what these countries request - geoblock the video in question so the remainder of the service remains accessible - they're no longer the "just the internet" Secretary Clinton is counting on.

Whether or not the US government should be advocating an internet freedom agenda - I still find Sami ben Gharbia's arguments against advocating such an agenda convincing - any attempt to use the internet as a digital public sphere needs to consider the role of US corporations. A year ago, I asked why Clinton didn't put pressure on US corporations to work to make their content harder to block in closed societies. At the moment, I'd ask why Secretary Clinton didn't challenge Facebook to rethink their real name policy - or at least their bad habit of deleting activist groups for inaccurate biographical information - in the wake of the use of that platform to push for change in Egypt. Her speech touched on the responsibility and power of US companies only in passing - I wish the speech had been a call to US companies to take a lead in ensuring their platforms can be used by people all over the world to push for social change.

With respect to those companies, the matter of whether they've joined the Global Network Initiative or not will be a matter of interest to the public using those services. Without more relevant players, the GNI won't have the teeth it needs to be relevant.

For now, the State Department has clarified its position on what it defines as Internet freedom. Clinton may not have broken a great deal of new ground in her speech at George Washington University but she did explore the core issues that will persist in making Internet policy in 2011 and beyond: balancing liberty with security, confidentiality with transparency, and protecting free expression while encouraging online civility. For citizens that care about those issues, the following speech is worth reading and considering.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community