Reacting to Clinton’s Freedom to Connect speech

Many good friends are in Washington, DC today to hear Secretary Clinton’s speech on Internet Freedom, and will be offering their reactions across a swath of online and offline media. I’m enjoying my own brand of internet freedom, the one that allows me to get the transcript of her speech as it’s delivered and offer my reactions online, while helping Rachel look after the joy and terror of our lives. I’ll link to their posts or tweet them as they come in, but I was asked by friends at the Index on Censorship to offer some thoughts on the speech, and I thought I’d (expand on and) share what I wrote for them.

It was encouraging to hear Secretary Clinton sounding like a dyed in the wool cyberutopian. Her description of the Internet as a “new nervous system for the planet” reflects aspirations much more than reality. Yes, we’re getting information from Hunan and Haiti… but we’ve got a lot of work to do to ensure that these networks allow all people to speak and to be heard. That’s not just a function of open networks and a battle against censorship. It’s a challenge that forces us to consider digital divides, language barriers, parochialism and patterns of news coverage and information flows. (I’ll be talking about these issues in a lecture – delivered online – at Stanford tonight.) I’m excited to hear Secretary Clinton offer her unambiguous conviction that the internet is a force for positive connection, even in the face of dangerous uses by criminals or terrorists – I hope that we can move on from offering the potential of a “new nervous system” into a conversation about the difficult realities of achieving that vision.

I’d been worried that Clinton’s speech might propose a new “charter of internet rights”, an idea that’s been percolating in Washington circles since early in the Obama administration. I’ve opposed the idea that the US should propose a novel set of rights, both because the rights we’d advocate for are well covered in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly in article 19, and because US advocacy for a new set of rights would make it easier for some nations – including nations that actively censor the internet – to claim that the right to information on the Internet was a manifestation of US first amendment freedoms, rather than a universal right. I thought Clinton did an excellent job of connecting her support for a “freedom to connect” in American tradition and history, but rooting it in international law. (I doubt she meant to give such a boost to my friend David Isenberg’s Freedom to Connect conference…) It’s hard for me to believe that the international institutions, like the UN Human Rights Council, will be especially effective guardians of these freedoms, given the embarrasing track record of international agencies like the ITU… but I think she’s wise to challenge international institutions to protect these rights.

I hadn’t heard about major policy initiatives linked to the speech, so I wasn’t especially surprised that there wasn’t much policy meat to the speech. (By the way, the speech had been scheduled well in advance of Google’s China announcements – it wasn’t a response to those developments. That, in turn, raises questions about the logic of the speech, since it wasn’t scheduled to be timely, or to make a major policy announcement. I think it’s simply a priority of her tenure, and a speech she’s wanted to give.) The US government is going to keep sponsoring tools and services that allow people to circumvent firewalls, as they’ve done for years. A number of commenters – and a couple of journalists – responded to my suggestion that Google could become a major player in the internet circumvention space by asking, “Wouldn’t that mean Google was declaring war on China?” If so, the US declared war on China years ago. Support for anticensorship tech is old news. Alec Ross has made clear – in some excellent speeches – that State would engage in diplomacy in the internet medium. The idea of a contest to develop new applications is cool, but not especially new.

What was interesting was hearing Clinton suggest that taking a stand against censorship should
become part of the “American brand”. It’s possible that we’re going to see the Google/China controversy revive discussion of using export bans to prohibit American companies from doing business with countries that censor. I think that’s a bad idea – it punishes a company like Cisco and provides more opportunity for Huawei, who are perfectly capable of building censorious routers all on their own. (A better path is the idea advocated by Tim Wu and others that the US seek trade sanctions against countries that censor the internet as an unfair restraint of trade.) By suggesting that companies embrace the branding opportunity of promoting freedom, I think she’s signalling a hope that companies will do the right thing rather than endorsing new export constraints.

The endorsement of the GNI was encouraging – GNI is a collaboration of major industry players, academics and NGOs (Berkman colleagues are closely involved in GNI, and I was involved in early meetings that led to the group’s formation.) Google’s been a big voice in GNI, and Clinton’s endorsement of the group sounded like like a hearty endorsement of their recent decision to change China business practices, and a challenge to other US companies to reconsider how they engage with nations that censor the Internet. Of course, it’s not clear that challenging companies to embrace their best aspirations is going to have any effect on Microsoft’s engagement with the Chinese market, for instance.

In other words, it’s encouraging to see Clinton and the State Department unambiguously on the right side of these issues. It’s hard to know whether there’s any concrete implications to these words today beyond a worthy set of aspirations. Here’s hoping the next step is a conversation about how we would move from the right intentions to real-world outcomes, not just on censorship, but on the provocative idea of the “freedom to connect” and the vision of a “new nervous system for the planet.”

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8 Responses to Reacting to Clinton’s Freedom to Connect speech

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  4. Johnny Ryan says:

    Ethan, good points. The State Department had already talked up its support for circumvention software – but had this ever come directly from a Secretary of State? What I found remarkable about this speech is that the Secretary made it herself.

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