Clinton on Internet freedom

Clinton on Internet freedom

You can read the full text of Secretary Clinton’s address on Internet freedom here as well as commentary from Evgeny Morozov and highlights on The Cable.

I was able to attend the speech at the Newseum and from where I sat, Clinton’s speech seemed impressive in its acceptance of the nuances and ambiguities of Internet policy, but the vision Clinton sketched out seemed underdeveloped and lacking teeth.

It seems fairly obvious that State was rushed into sketching out this new policy by Google’s China announcement last week, and some of that haste showed in the ambiguity of Clinton’s remarks — particularly the section on online anonymity and the role of private enterprise. 

I did think that Clinton’s description of Internet connectivity as a value-neutral technology — "Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns and nuclear energy can power a city or destroy it" — was an impressively realistic framing of the issue. I know Evgeny doesn’t think that Clinton developed this idea far enough, but it’s not easy to bring that level of complexity into a speech like this and she did a decent job explaining it.

Clinton’s bold promise that "countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences" was undercut somewhat by her weak statement on the China-Google incident.

"The United States and China have different views on this issue. And we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently," she said. I don’t think anyone in Beijing will be losing too much sleep tonight.  

A telling moment came during the brief Q&A session that followed Clinton’s remarks when the operator of a U.S.-based website supporting democracy in Libya told Clinton that his site had come under multiple attacks from hackers in recent months and asked how the U.S. could help. Clinton told him that they were studying the issue and invited his participation. 

The $15 million State is allocating to promote internet freedom and the innovation contest they are spurring are great ideas, but it’s clear that the U.S. government is still feeling its way in this new environment and hasn’t quite decided its position on several issues. Should private companies not operate in countries where Internet freedom is limited or make compromises in order to facilitate greater information access? Is it worth promoting online political discussion in authoritarian regimes if that discussion also empowers anti-American extremists? How can authorities police the Internet for extremism and cybercrime without compromising the very openness that makes it valuable?

Today’s speech was less the introduction of a new initiative or vision, than a promise to develop such a vision. The fact that Clinton is taking the above issues seriously and discussing them publicly — even if State’s position is not quite articulated — is welcome. After watching the speech, I’m still not entirely sure what "21st century statecraft" is and I’m not sure that Clinton does, or would even claim to, but the fact that Clinton is working to develop such a policy and acknowledging the complexity of the landscape is a healthy development — even if it took a nudge from Google to make it happen.