Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

A three week old reaction to Secretary Clinton’s internet freedom 2011 speech

A colleague who works in the State Department contacted me a few weeks ago and asked if I wanted to offer any suggestions for what Secretary Clinton might cover in her second address on internet freedom, the address she gave this afternoon at George Washington University. I sent him a long note in the form of a proposed speech, on January 24th, the day before protesters took to the streets in Cairo, ten days days after Ben Ali fled Tunisia.

My note was pretty angry, and I included with it a preface saying, “I don’t expect you’ll be able to use any of this, but thanks for listening anyway.” At that moment, I was very disappointed with the US government’s halting reaction to protests in Tunisia and the sparse media attention those protests received in the US. And I felt like anything Secretary Clinton said about internet freedom would sound questionable and hypocritcal in light of US government pressure on Wikileaks.

My colleague graciously acknowledged the note, vigorously disagreeing with my characterization of US government actions in response to Wikileaks. While I was grateful he’d asked for my input, I felt pretty sure I’d be disappointed by the speech Clinton delivered.

Actually there was a lot of what Secretary Clinton said today that I appreciated:

- I was glad to hear her make it clear that the movements in Tunisia and Egypt weren’t about the internet – at most, the internet helped with some of the organization and dissemination of the protest movements.

- While most of the critique over filtering/censorship featured the usual suspects – Iran, Syria, Cuba, China – it was encouraging to see Vietnam explicitly mentioned as a country that harasses and arrests bloggers. The examples used in this year’s speech felt broader than last years, and less China-focused.

- I was very pleased to hear Clinton point out that there’s no single tool that’s capable of “solving” internet censorship, and that people demanding funding for silver bullet solutions weren’t going to sway State Department policy. State has come under steady pressure from lobbyists to pour funding into one subset of the tools developers are working on to combat internet censorship. While I don’t believe circumventing censorship is ever going to be a valid strategy for the majority of internet users, I’m glad to hear support for an ecosystem of solutions – we need multiple approaches, if only because they make it harder for governments to block tools.

While I thought framing questions about the future of the internet in terms of tensions – security versus liberty, transparency versus confidentiality, expression versus civility – was wise, I didn’t find her answers regarding Wikileaks especially convincing. As friends at Berkman pointed out in reaction to her speech, Wikileaks didn’t steal those cables. They acted as a journalistic organization in publishing that leaked material. And while it’s good to know that it wasn’t official Obama administration policy to pressure companies not to do business with Wikileaks, but it doesn’t change the fact that US corporations cut vital services to Wikileaks under what they perceived to be US government pressure. I was glad she tackled the question head on instead of skirting it, even though I found the “it’s not Wikileaks, it’s theft we don’t like” explanation unpalatable.

I was particularly encouraged to see Secretary Clinton addressing the “dictator’s dilemma”, the difficulty of using the internet as a tool for economic growth and entertainment without enabling the internet for activist purposes. I wish I were as sanguine as she in offering this formulation: “Walls that divide the Internet – that block political content, ban broad categories of expression, allow certain forms of peaceful assembly but prohibit others, or intimidate people from expressing their ideas- are far easier to erect than they are to maintain. Not just because people find ways around them and through them, but because there isn’t an economic internet and a social internet and apolitical internet – there’s just the internet.”

Those walls are hard to maintain, true, but they’re lots easier to maintain with the help of the (mostly US-based) companies that host large fractions of the Internet’s traffic. What should YouTube do when a video they host violates local law in Turkey or Thailand? If they do what these countries request – geoblock the video in question so the remainder of the service remains accessible – they’re no longer the “just the internet” Secretary Clinton is counting on.

Whether or not the US government should be advocating an internet freedom agenda – I still find Sami ben Gharbia’s arguments against advocating such an agenda convincing – any attempt to use the internet as a digital public sphere needs to consider the role of US corporations. A year ago, I asked why Clinton didn’t put pressure on US corporations to work to make their content harder to block in closed societies. At the moment, I’d ask why Secretary Clinton didn’t challenge Facebook to rethink their real name policy – or at least their bad habit of deleting activist groups for inaccurate biographical information – in the wake of the use of that platform to push for change in Egypt. Her speech touched on the responsibility and power of US companies only in passing – I wish the speech had been a call to US companies to take a lead in ensuring their platforms can be used by people all over the world to push for social change.

Here’s the suggested speech I offered on 1/24:

Events in Tunisia are evidence that we’re in a different world than ten years ago. No, Facebook didn’t cause the Tunisian revolution – the frustration of the Tunisian people with their lousy situation and their bravery in taking to the streets caused the fall of a dictatorial, repressive government. But the internet helped the Tunisian people make the decision to stand up – reports from Sidi Bouzid were rebroadcast on Al Jazeera and passed around via email and SMS, helping people throughout the country understand that people were standing up and demanding change.

The internet makes it possible for people in a dusty, largely disconnected city in a country where the government systematically suppresses dissent to be heard. And when they are heard, their defiance and bravery can be an inspiration to the people around them and people around the world.

Before Ben Ali was forced by his people to step down, he was one of the most notorious censors of the internet. Tunisia’s largest ISP was actively spying on users, seizing dissidents passwords to their Gmail and Facebook accounts. But Ben Ali understood that the internet was so powerful that he couldn’t block Facebook, which over 19% of Tunisians use, or shut the net off entirely without sparking broader revolts and protests. As he bargained with his citizens to remain in power, one of the major concessions he offered was an end to internet censorship.

Throughout the Middle East, leaders are trying to figure out what the lessons of the Tunisian revolution are. Will the internet bring rebellions throughout the region? Will their governments fall as their citizens see frustration, protest and defiance online and on satellite television? The best governments in the region will learn to listen to these expressions of anger online, to encourage the dialog and to work with their citizens for solutions. The worst will attempt to block and silence these voices.

Our goal is not for the internet to lead to a wave of revolutions throughout the Arab world. (After all, we’re propping up most of these creaky autocrats, including Ben Ali, who we were apologizing for up to the moment his people sent him packing.) Instead, our goal is to ensure that people can make their voices heard in this new space, and hope that governments will be wise enough to listen and to engage.

When I spoke a year ago, I warned that an open internet has two sides – the potential to be used to harm, as well as to help. The events of the past year have shown that even our country has an ongoing debate about whether the internet is too open, whether sites like Wikileaks have a place in our public discourse. I regret the actions taken by some members of the US government to pressure US companies not to provide services to Wikileaks. If we believe in freedom of speech, we need to accept that we’re not going to like everything people have to say. If we believe in an open internet, it needs to be open to those that criticize, not just those that praise. And I accept that the heavy-handed actions taken by some undercut and call into question our commitment to the internet as an open space for dialog.

When I last spoke, I challenged governments like that of the People’s Republic of China to take up the challenge of wrestling with an open internet and listening directly to the voices of their people. Today, I offer two new challenges. One is to my own government, to wrestle with issues of online speech in a way that exemplifies our commitment to the First amendement, especially when that speech is politically uncomfortable.

And I offer a challenge to the companies doing the innovative work in creating our new, digital public sphere. Understand that the people using your tools are not just customers, but citizens. We need to ensure their rights of freedom of expression in online media, to ensure that dissidents, whether they are Tunisian, American or Chinese, can use Facebook, Twitter or whatever media they choose to challenge what’s wrong with their governments, celebrate what’s right and work for change.

2 Responses to “A three week old reaction to Secretary Clinton’s internet freedom 2011 speech”

  1. Shaked says:

    Clinton has a talent for big words (as she also demonstrated not long ago in China), but her actions seem to be the complete opposite.
    WikiLeaks or the bill giving the US president the privilege to cut off the internet connection in the US due to “Cyberterrorism” (where was she to condemn it?!) are just a few examples.

  2. Words are easy. I’m not sure anyone in D.C. has the will to do what is right.

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