Hillary Clinton’s Historic Speech on Global Internet Freedom

by on January 21, 2010 · 137 comments

This morning at the Newseum in Washington, DC, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered remarks on Internet freedom and the future of global free speech and expression. [Transcript is here + video.] It will go down as a historic speech in the field of Internet policy since she drew a bold line in the cyber-sand regarding exactly where the United States stands on global online freedom. Clinton’s answer was unequivocal: “Both the American people and nations that censor the Internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote Internet freedom.” “The Internet can serve as a great equalizer,” she argued. “By providing people with access to knowledge and potential markets, networks can create opportunities where none exist.”

Unfortunately, however, “the same networks that help organize movements for freedom… can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.”  Echoing Winston Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech, Sec. Clinton argued that “With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world.”  She noted that virtual walls are replacing traditional walls in many nations as repressive regimes seek to squash the liberties of their citizenry.  That’s why the Administration’s bold stand in favor of online freedom is so essential.

Importantly, Sec. Clinton made it clear that the Obama Administration is ready to commit significant resources to this effort. She said that, over the next year, the State Department plans to work with others to establish a standing effort to promote technology and will invite technologists to help advance the cause through a new “innovation competition” that will promote circumvention technologies and other technologies of freedom. Sec. Clinton also challenged private companies to stand up to censorship globally and challenge foreign governments when they demand controls on the free flow of information or digital technology.

That is particularly important because Secretary Clinton’s speech comes on the heels of the recent news that Google and at least 30 other Internet companies were the victims of cyberattacks in China, which raises profound questions about the future of online freedom and cybersecurity. Sec. Clinton’s remarks will make it clear to online operators that the U.S. government stands prepared to back them up when they challenge the censorial policies of repressive foreign regimes.

It’s also worth noting that, back in October, Secretary Clinton took a bold stand on global religious defamation policies, which are becoming a growing international concern from a free speech perspective. I praised her for that speech here and noted how important it was that Administration officials put issues such as freedom of religious worship and freedom of speech and expression front and center in future foreign diplomacy efforts. With today’s speech, Sec. Clinton and the Obama Administration have again risen to that challenge by making it clear that these issues will now be part of future diplomatic efforts and discussions.

At one point she joked that somewhere in the world a foreign government official was trying to censor her speech as she delivered it! But she’s right: Plenty of foreign government are still aggressively attempting to censor the Net and to repress digital technologies every second of the day. To put things in perspective, just yesterday, the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) reported that more than half a billion Internet users are being filtered worldwide. And if you want a country-by-country synopsis of just how bad things are, check out the amazing report, Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering, which is compiled by several scholars involved in the ONI project.

To understand the profound (and somewhat ironical) historical significance of Sec. Clinton’s speech today, you need to remember that less than 15 years ago in this country we had a heated debate over whether American citizens should even be allowed to use encryption technology, or if the government should “hold the keys” to such technologies. Luckily, the “Clipper Chip” wars ended when Hillary’s husband and his Administration basically gave up in its efforts to pursue it further. Moreover, I can’t help but recall what Mrs. Clinton said after the White House sex scandal erupted back in 1998 and the details spread rapidly across the Internet: “We are all going to have to rethink how we deal with [the Internet], because there are all these competing values,” she said. “Without any kind of editing function or gatekeeping function, what does it mean to have the right to defend your reputation?”  It seems like Mrs. Clinton has come a long way, so much so that she is now defending technologies — and is apparently willing to even subsidize technologies — that will allow citizens to evade “gatekeepers” of all sorts.

I also appreciated Sec. Clinton’s quip that “once you’re on the internet, you don’t need to be a tycoon or a rock star to have a huge impact on society.”  She repeatedly argued in her speech that the Internet has empowered every man, woman, and child to be heard and to make a difference in this world.  Amen.  But those opportunities for each of us to make a difference can only be realized if governments worldwide are willing to let them happen. I’ve always generally agreed with John Gilmore’s famous quip that “the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”  Nonetheless, I’m not a quixotic utopian when it comes to these things. I’m enough of a realist to understand that if governments put enough effort into the task, they can quash networks and silence a great deal of expression.  However, it’s a far more difficult undertaking today than it was in the past. The sheer volume and scope of online activity alone makes it an enormous undertaking.

Could we be on the verge of “the end of censorship” as I have wondered here before? Probably not any time soon, but thanks to the bold vision and steps that Secretary Clinton and Obama Administration announced today, we are a little bit closer.


Additional Reading / Listening:

Previous post:

Next post: