December 10, 2011 | By Maira Sutton

iFreedom Conference: Noting state leaders' comments on the future of free expression online

Netherlands - On Thursday and Friday last week, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Uri Rosenthal, hosted the Freedom Online Conference in the Hague. The stated purpose of this Google-sponsored event was to forge a coalition of state, corporate, and civil society members to stand for freedom of expression on the Internet, especially for activists and bloggers. Participants included European parliamentarian Marietje Schaake, Tor Project’s Director of Public Policy Karen Reilly, and European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes.

The conference may have had some degree of useful impact in bringing together activists (such as Syrian blogger Amjad Baiazy) with state leaders in demonstrating the real effects these internet policies have on real people’s lives. However, it was also disappointingly clear how much of disconnect there is between what these state leaders practice, and what they preach.

Minister Uri Rosenthal gave the opening address, calling for legislation against technology exports of mass Internet surveillance equipment and a vague promise to invest millions of euros to “help Internet activists in repressive regimes.” We're excited to see that world leaders are giving thoughtful discussion to the issue of surveillance exports and hope their stance is in accordance with the standards we published earlier this year. But as the Electronic Intifada (EI) reported, Rosenthal's support for digital freedom seemed contradictory, given his mixed record for supporting the rights of news publications that conflict with his personal political beliefs

Next on schedule was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who gave a keynote that outlined the need for the U.S. and its international allies to uphold free expression on the Internet.  Among many broad enthusiastic statements about the need for free expression on the net, Clinton said:

[T]he more people that are online and contributing ideas, the more valuable the entire network becomes to all the other users. In this way, all users, through the billions of individual choices we make about what information to seek or share, fuel innovation, enliven public debates, quench a thirst for knowledge, and connect people in ways that distance and cost made impossible just a generation ago.   

On condemning draft proposals introduced by nations that would allow greater global state mandate over the Internet in their individual countries, Clinton said:

…They aim to impose a system, cemented in a global code, that expands control over Internet resources, institutions and content and centralizes that control in the hands of the government...

Her acknowledgement of online censorship and oppression showcased just as limited a view as Rosenthal. While she continued to assail oppressive regimes of Syria, Iran, and China for human rights violations and stifling press freedom, she ignores the way the U.S. has and continues to take shamelessly draconian measures in trying to suppress the revelations published by WikiLeaks. In fact, Clinton’s former spokesman at the State Department, P.J. Crowley, just remarked this week that the U.S. government’s investigation into WikiLeaks undermines the United States’ ability to pressure Russia and China to allow greater press freedom.

Clinton has not yet recognized the devastation the SOPA and PIPA bills would cause to the State Department’s own Internet Freedom Initiative in the name of upholding copyright. If these bills aren’t part of a system that “expands control over Internet resources, institutions and content, and centralizes that control in the hands of the government,” who knows what is. 

If she were truly as committed to statements about an open and free Internet, she would be fighting harder against the existing offensive forces in her own country trying to break the internet, instead of, as Glenn Greenwald put it, working to “self-righteously impose standards on other countries which they [themselves] routinely violate.”


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