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How about a high-tech ‘Reset’ button for U.S. human rights policy?

How about a high-tech ‘Reset’ button for U.S. human rights policy?

By Jean M. Geran

On Jan. 21, Secretary Clinton is scheduled to make an important speech on new technology and 21st-century statecraft. After a year of weak U.S. leadership on human rights and democracy issues, this speech is an important opportunity to reiterate a strong U.S. commitment to freedom across the board. The latest Freedom in the World 2010 survey results from Freedom House highlight an overall decline in global freedom for the fourth consecutive year. Now is the time to redouble our support for human rights and democracy, not cut back as the Obama administration has done. As my colleague David Kramer pointed out, the Secretary began digging the Administration out of the human rights hole it was in last December with her speech at Georgetown University. She has a lot more digging to do. But the inherent link between new technology and freedom of expression, assembly, and association makes her upcoming speech an ideal tool. 

There are promising signs that this will be a good speech thanks to some creative stars on her policy planning staff and others peppered around the administration. State has commendably been leading the use of new technology for the Haiti response with several initiatives. Mobile text giving, crisis mapping and database innovation have contributed to a transformation in how the international community is responding to a horrible natural disaster. I hope the administration continues to think big and in a bipartisan fashion on Haiti. They should do the same on human rights.

Creating innovative partnerships and delegations to Iraq and Afghanistan with leaders in the technology industry and asking Twitter to delay maintenance while protests were underway in Iran have been examples of creative diplomacy in the midst of an otherwise flawed foreign policy. But Iran also illustrates the limits of this kind of diplomacy when it is not backed by a robust commitment to human rights in U.S. policy. 

New technologies do not oppose tyrannical regimes, share information about democracy, or organize for social change. The people who use them do. President Obama found himself on the wrong side of history when he refused to openly support the Iranian people on the streets of Tehran who were using video, cell phones, and social media to stand for freedom of speech and assembly after the June elections. It was a huge mistake and a missed opportunity.  

And last week’s principled decision by Google to stop censoring its search engine in China following the Chinese Government’s hacking is another reminder that human rights protection must return to its former high priority status. Back in early 2006 when the world was surprised that Google agreed to Chinese censorship in the first place and Yahoo! was turning over information on dissidents, Secretary Rice created the Global Internet Freedom Task Force (GIFT). I was a member of the Policy Planning Staff at the time and there was internal debate within the State Department about how best to frame the GIFT, with some bureaus wanting to focus more on the ‘free flow of information’ instead of ‘freedom of expression.’  In the end, we all agreed that while both are important, freedom of expression should be the priority because censorship in places like China or Iran is designed to stifle dissent, not trade. Unfortunately, during his China trip President Obama neglected to mention freedom of expression in response to a question in Shanghai about Twitter, and instead resorted to platitudes about "free information." Internet freedom is essentially a human rights issue and should be treated as such. 

Secretary Clinton’s speech at Georgetown was basically a restatement of longstanding U.S. approaches to human rights going back several administrations. Rhetorically, it brought us back to the status quo. We need much more from her upcoming speech, such as a bold statement on the importance of new technologies and Internet freedom for 21st-century statecraft that recommits the United States vocally, actively and creatively to support all the dissidents and human rights defenders using those technologies. After her speech, Chinese Internet users, Iranian tweeters, Cuban bloggers, Russian journalists, and Burmese videographers should all know that the United States, including our president, stands with them against tyranny — both in word and deed. New technology has the potential to facilitate change but more potential exists in the people who use it to promote the values and principles we all share. It is a dangerous time to be a dissident, yet they are often the best hope for a more peaceful, free and prosperous world. Let’s capitalize on new opportunities presented by technology to support them in innovative and creative ways.

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