January 25, 2010 | By Danny O'Brien

Clinton on Internet Freedom, and Principled Stands

Secretary Clinton's speech last week on Internet Freedom was an important step in bringing online free expression and privacy to the forefront of the United States' foreign policy agenda.

But for all the strong language, it was also a speech of caveats: powerful statements like "we stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas" sat close to hedges about the dangers of anonymous speech, and how it might be used to distribute "stolen intellectual property". Clinton expressed concern at those who "violate the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech", but she also spoke of "redoubl[ing] efforts" similar to the Convention on Cybercrime, a document which provides scant protections for the privacy of anyone being investigated by a foreign government.

Enacting policy has a way of clarifying these ambiguities, for good or ill. Many of the projects that the State Department says it will encourage and fund, including systems to allow whistleblowers to expose corruption, and permit citizens fighting drug-related violence in Mexico to make "make untracked reports to reliable sources to avoid having retribution visited against them", require a strong anonymous infrastructure. The State Department's work will depend on anonymity, so we hope it will defend it. The US government could also take a diplomatic lead in requiring high standards for evidence and due process in international cybersecurity treaties, and we hope they will.

Perhaps the most significant shift in the State Department's attitude, however, concerned its attitude to domestic companies and their relationship with repressive architecture abroad.

Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. And in America, American companies need to make a principled stand. This needs to be part of our national brand. I'm confident that consumers worldwide will reward companies that follow those principles.

Now, we are reinvigorating the Global Internet Freedom Task Force as a forum for addressing threats to internet freedom around the world, and we are urging U.S. media companies to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments' demands for censorship and surveillance. The private sector has a shared responsibility to help safeguard free expression. And when their business dealings threaten to undermine this freedom, they need to consider what's right, not simply what's a quick profit.

Secretary Clinton has put her stamp of approval on voluntary initiatives to help global companies create global standards of privacy and free expression that are consistent with international human rights documents. She cites the work of the Global Network Initiative, an organization that includes companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! and human rights groups like EFF, Human Rights Watch, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

But Secretary Clinton went even further here. She specifically included a proactive role in challenging illegitimate government demands for "surveillance". This is important and should be the start of a broader conversation inside and outside the government. Because in the case of both filtering and spying on the Net, the risk is not only from companies that comply with illegitimate requests: it is from companies that actively profit from those authoritarian government's demands.

Secretary Clinton's call for a public-private partnership in building tools to support Internet freedom should include a call for attention, and action to stop another set of troubling public-private partnerships: between authoritarian governments and private companies willing to build their Great Firewalls and dragnet surveillance systems for them. If Internet freedom really is part of America's national brand, we could start by alerting consumers of not only the victims of Internet censorship and control, but those who help build the technology that enables it.


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