As Egyptian authorities struggled to quash anti-government uprisings yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the longtime U.S. ally to unblock social networking sites that have been used to organize protests, such as those operated by Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.
By urging Egypt’s government “not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media,” Clinton in Washington renewed her call for freedom of expression and assembly online, and fueled debate over how to promote those goals without undermining other U.S. interests.
Clinton’s defense of social networking is “a very delicate balancing act,” because of the longstanding U.S. relationship with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “At the same time, we’re starting to see evidence of an anti-authoritarian revolution in the region, and she doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of that either. The safe stance is to be pro-free speech,” he said.
In January 2010, Clinton praised Google Inc. for resisting Chinese censorship and championed Internet freedom. In a speech that drew international attention, she stated three goals: to promote Internet freedom and push back against governments that restrict it; to press U.S. corporations to resist censorship and defend privacy, and to fund new online and mobile technologies that evade censorship and repression.
Advocacy Vs. Results
In the year since, U.S. officials say advocacy for online liberty has become part and parcel of their conversations with friends and foes. Since most diplomacy occurs behind the scenes, it’s hard to prove whether those efforts have effective, leaving the administration open to criticism that it hasn’t lived up to Clinton’s lofty words.
“If you benchmark what they’ve done against Clinton’s speech, I think it’s a mixed bag,” said Arvind Ganesan, director of business and human rights at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group. There has been “no comprehensive, coordinated strategy throughout the administration,” he said.
Egyptian activists this week used the microblogging service Twitter, based in San Francisco, and the social-networking site Facebook, based in Palo Alto, California, to organize protests inspired by the recent popular revolt in Tunisia.
Twitter confirmed disruptions to its service in Egypt after street protests broke out Jan. 25. While some Facebook users reported the service was inaccessible in Egypt, according to the monitoring site Herdict.org, the company said it is hasn’t seen major changes in traffic.
Egyptian authorities banned protests and tightened security overnight to prevent demonstrations from recurring.
David Keyes, director of Cyberdissidents.org, a New York-based group supporting online dissidents in the Mideast, said U.S. aid should be contingent on the protection of Internet freedoms by recipient governments. Egypt is the fourth-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, based on the State Department’s request for fiscal year 2011.
In authoritarian states across the Mideast, including some that U.S. allies disappointed dissidents “feel neglected and isolated,” Keyes said.
U.S. officials say while their work is not often done in public, it includes helping Internet users evade firewalls, training activists to use mobile and online technology safely and pressing foreign governments for the release of activists.
Internet Freedom Push
Clinton and other diplomats now routinely raise Internet freedom in “both difficult and friendly contexts,” said Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. “The fact that it’s not on the front page of a newspaper doesn’t mean it’s not being raised.”
Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, an international community of bloggers, agreed that because of the risk to activists, “whether it’s money or assistance, the effect is not going to be visible to the general public.”
One move that got attention was the administration’s decision last year to issue a license to allow U.S. companies to distribute free software for personal communications in Iran. The exemption had unforeseen consequences when a much-touted tool called Haystack, intended to evade censorship and protect anonymity, was quickly compromised.
Just as Clinton backed Google when the Mountain View, California-based company last year said it would allow Chinese users to access an uncensored version of its Internet browser, the State Department says it has worked with technology companies to resist censorship and advocated on their behalf.
A Better Understanding
Baer said companies have a better understanding now of the vital role they play in enabling people to enjoy freedom of information, and in protecting online privacy to shield them from reprisals. Google, for example, has moved its Gmail to a more secure platform.
Facebook Inc. has become “incredibly more sensitive to security issues of users” in countries that blocked access or monitored political activities on the site, said Robert Guerra, executive director of Freedom House, a Washington-based human rights group. Clinton has raised expectations on companies to do better, he said.
Still, Google, Microsoft Corp., and Yahoo! Inc., are the only technology corporations that have joined the Global Network Initiative, a group of financial services firms, rights groups and communications companies committed to resisting government censorship and demands for private user information.
Clinton last August announced the U.S. was pressing governments, including the United Arab Emirates, to resolve disputes with Research In Motion Ltd., the Waterloo, Ontario-based maker of the BlackBerry smartphone.
The UAE, Saudi Arabia and India last year threatened to shut down BlackBerry service unless authorities were allowed to monitor messaging, citing concerns about illegal activities. The Saudi and UAE governments eventually backed down; India’s talks with RIM are ongoing.
As with other private talks, it’s hard to determine if the intervention of U.S. officials made a difference. RIM declined to comment.
New technology raises the quandary of balancing civil liberties against protecting national security, children and intellectual property, said Rebecca MacKinnon, a fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington policy institute. The administration and lawmakers haven’t “figured out how to get that balance right,” she said.
Some on Capitol Hill, she said, define Internet freedom narrowly as a means to promote regime overthrow in countries such as China, Iran, Cuba and Myanmar. Those critics have assailed the administration for not spending Congressional funds quickly enough, or focusing them on anti-censorship technology.
Accusations of Foot-Dragging
Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona and others complain President Barack Obama’s administration has dragged its feet in spending $30 million that Congress allocated for technology to circumvent Internet firewalls erected by repressive regimes.
Administration officials say funding must go to training as well as technology, since using circumvention tools puts dissidents at risk.
“Technology is a part of the puzzle, but it’s not all of it. People need to know how to use technology safely and securely,” the State Department’s Baer said.
A study by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society found the use of circumvention tools is very limited in repressive states.
The government last year awarded more than $6 million for training and tools, of which $1.5 million went to the Broadcasting Board of Governors for circumvention technology. The agency, which oversees government media including Voice of America, funneled that money to the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, a group that provides anti-censorship software and is associated with the Falun Gong, a Buddhist spiritual sect banned in China.
In December 2010, the State Department announced it would award the $30 million appropriated last year, and solicited proposals for counter-censorship technology, secure mobile communications, digital safety training and assistance to dissidents under threat for web-based activism.
Marvin Ammori, a professor of Internet law at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb., said it’s unfair to judge effectiveness by how much authoritarian regimes have budged in the last year.
“We can’t expect overnight miracles,” he said.