Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed the U.S. will step up support for global Internet freedom, as citizens using social networking sites run by Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. organize demonstrations spreading across the Mideast and North Africa.
Clinton, in her second major speech against Internet restrictions, said recent protests show how technology can accelerate “political, social, and economic change” or “slow or extinguish that change,” referring to government efforts in Egypt, Iran, Syria and elsewhere to restrict online and mobile media.
The U.S. will help “people in oppressive Internet environments get around filters, stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers, and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online,” she said yesterday in a speech in Washington.
For more than a year, Clinton has led the Obama administration’s efforts to promote online freedom. During protests against Mubarak, she urged Egypt to unblock Facebook and Twitter, which were used to organize protests. She praised Google Inc. for resisting Chinese censorship in her January 2010 speech on the Internet, and has called on technology companies to stand firm against repressive regimes and protect user privacy.
‘Freedom to Connect’
Clinton noted that 2 billion people are online, nearly one-third of humankind, and said the U.S. supports the universal right of all people to gather and communicate online, the “freedom to connect” as she called it.
“The Internet has become the public space of the 21st century-the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house, and nightclub,” she said.
Clinton announced the creation of a State Department office for Cyber Issues that will be led by Christopher Painter, an official on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council and former federal prosecutor specializing in computer crime.
The State Department this month started Twitter feeds in Arabic, which reached 570,000 in its first days, and Farsi, which reached 288,000 people within hours, officials said. Clinton announced the department will soon launch similar feeds in Chinese, Russian and Hindi.
A year ago, Clinton laid out three goals, which she underscored yesterday: 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.
“Monitoring and responding to threats to Internet freedom has become part of the daily work of our diplomats and development experts,” Clinton said in a nearly hour-long speech at George Washington University. “We are taking a comprehensive and innovative approach -- one that matches our diplomacy with technology, secure distribution networks for tools and direct support for those on the front lines.”
In the last year, Clinton and her deputies have criticized the repression of online activists and journalists in Egypt, Tunisia, Azerbaijan, Syria and China, among other countries.
The secretary threw her support behind the “multi-stakeholder system” that governs the Internet, which may be a reference to a dispute over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Icann, as it is known, is a California-based nonprofit group that ensures an Internet address typed in one country appears the same in all countries.
Several nations, including China, have pushed to allow governments to redirect Internet queries within their borders. The current system, which brings together the technology industry, non-profit groups and governments to determine standards, has maintained an Internet that looks the same worldwide, unless a government actively blocks sites.
Clinton said businesses must “choose whether and how to enter markets where Internet freedom is limited.”
Representative William Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat, has proposed legislation to restrict U.S. companies from selling to “repressive regimes” software that can be used to censor content on the Internet.
“The Internet is going to be a terrific tool for democracy. We cannot have American companies” be involved in “repressing human rights,” Keating told Bloomberg Television today.
Last August, Clinton said 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 had threatened to shut down BlackBerry service unless authorities were allowed to monitor messaging.
The secretary praised the work of 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. The group has also discussed the issue of whether to sell technologies that could be used to violate rights. So far, Google, Microsoft Corp., and Yahoo! Inc. are the only technology corporations that have joined the group.
“We’re quite conscious that decisions that companies make” that might once have seemed “like pure business decisions have an effect on human rights,” Ben Scott, an innovation policy adviser to Clinton, said in an interview.
The State Department will award more than $25 million this year to support counter-censorship technology, secure mobile communications, digital safety training and assistance to dissidents under threat for web-based activism, she said.
Since fiscal year 2008, Congress has allocated $50 million to support Internet freedom and help overseas users circumvent firewalls erected by repressive regimes. Critics such as Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, who released a report yesterday urging more action supporting Internet freedom in China, have assailed the Obama administration for not spending Congressional funds fast enough or focusing them on anti-censorship technology.
Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on Clinton to transfer at least $8 million of available funds to the Broadcasting Board of Governors to focus on circumvention technology. The agency, which oversees government media including Voice of America, funneled a $1.5 million grant last year 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.
While Clinton acknowledged that “some have criticized us for not pouring funding into a single technology,” she argued that the State Department is taking “a venture capital-style approach, supporting a portfolio of technologies, tools, and training.”
Clinton defended the Obama administration against charges of hypocrisy in its fight against online release of classified U.S. cables by the WikiLeaks group, saying its support for an open Internet does not negate the rule of law. “Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase,” she said.
The secretary also denied reports that the U.S. government had coerced private companies to deny service to WikiLeaks.
Yesterday in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, the Justice Department argued it should be able to obtain account data of Twitter users for its investigation of how WikiLeaks acquired and released classified documents.
Clinton asserted that there are costs to governments who try to open the Internet for business and close it for political or social expression.
“When countries curtail Internet freedom, they place limits on their economic future,” she said. “Barring criticism of officials makes governments more susceptible to corruption, which creates economic distortions with long-term effects.”