The US government will provide US$25m to help digital activists and political dissidents in autocratic countries work their way around censorship. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said the internet is the public square of the 21st century and must be kept open.
She said the US government has so far awarded more than US$20m in competitive grants through an open process to support a “burgeoning group of technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against internet repression.”
Clinton added a further US$25m is going to be awarded to these activists’ efforts.
“A few minutes after midnight on January 28th, the internet went dark across Egypt,” said Clinton during a speech yesterday on the campus of George Washington University.
“During the previous four days, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians had marched to demand a new government. And the world, on TVs, laptops, cellphones, and smartphones, had followed every single step. Pictures and videos from Egypt flooded the web. On Facebook and Twitter, journalists posted on-the-spot reports. Protesters co-ordinated their next moves. And citizens of all stripes shared their hopes and fears about this pivotal moment in the history of their country.”
Clinton said what happened in Egypt and what happened in Iran, which this week is once again using violence against protesters seeking basic freedoms, was about a great deal more than the internet. “In each case, people protested because of deep frustrations with the political and economic conditions of their lives. They stood and marched and chanted and the authorities tracked and blocked and arrested them. The internet did not do any of those things; people did.”
Clinton said 2bn people are now online, nearly a third of humankind. “We hail from every corner of the world, live under every form of government, and subscribe to every system of beliefs. And increasingly, we are turning to the internet to conduct important aspects of our lives.
The internet, she said, has become the public space of the 21st century – the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffeehouse and nightclub. “We all shape and are shaped by what happens there, all 2bn of us and counting. And that presents a challenge. To maintain an internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that will guide us, what rules exist and should not exist and why, what behaviours should be encouraged or discouraged and how.”
The economic price of censorship
Clinton warned that countries that oppress internet freedom and try to censor freedom of speech are in effect blotting their own economic futures.
“When countries curtail internet freedom, they place limits on their economic future. Their young people don’t have full access to the conversations and debates happening in the world or exposure to the kind of free inquiry that spurs people to question old ways of doing and invent new ones. And barring criticism of officials makes governments more susceptible to corruption, which create economic distortions with long-term effects. Freedom of thought and the level playing field made possible by the rule of law are part of what fuels innovation economies.
“So it’s not surprising that the European-American Business Council, a group of more than 70 companies, made a strong public support statement last week for internet freedom. If you invest in countries with aggressive censorship and surveillance policies, your website could be shut down without warning, your servers hacked by the government, your designs stolen, or your staff threatened with arrest or expulsion for failing to comply with a politically motivated order. The risks to your bottom line and to your integrity will at some point outweigh the potential rewards, especially if there are market opportunities elsewhere,” Clinton warned.
On the subject of WikiLeaks
During her speech, Clinton slammed WikiLeaks publishing diplomatic cables as theft. She said the US government did not play a role in US companies like Amazon, MasterCard, PayPal and Visa shutting off payment services for WikiLeaks.
“Now, I know that government confidentiality has been a topic of debate during the past few months because of WikiLeaks, but it’s been a false debate in many ways. Fundamentally, the WikiLeaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase. Some have suggested that this theft was justified because governments have a responsibility to conduct all of our work out in the open in the full view of our citizens. I respectfully disagree.
“The United States could neither provide for our citizens’ security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our efforts. Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise.
“Consider our work with former Soviet states to secure loose nuclear material. By keeping the details confidential, we make it less likely that terrorists or criminals will find the nuclear material and steal it for their own purposes.”
Clinton said the US government’s ability to protect America and to support the rights and freedoms of others around the world depends on maintaining a balance between what’s public and what should and must remain out of the public domain.
“The scale should and will always be tipped in favour of openness, but tipping the scale over completely serves no one’s interests.
“Let me be clear. I said that the WikiLeaks incident began with a theft, just as if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase. The fact that WikiLeaks used the internet is not the reason we criticised its actions. WikiLeaks does not challenge our commitment to internet freedom.
“And one final word on this matter: There were reports in the days following these leaks that the United States Government intervened to coerce private companies to deny service to WikiLeaks. That is not the case.
“Business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own values or policies regarding WikiLeaks were not at the direction of the Obama Administration,” Clinton said.