Making the Web Safe for Democracy

What the United States can and should do to spread Internet freedom.


With this week’s news that the Gmail accounts of foreign journalists in China had been hacked, coming on the heels of last week’s brazen attacks on the accounts of Chinese human rights activists and the broad, sophisticated cyberattacks on about 34 U.S. companies, the Chinese assault on Internet freedom is now out in the open for all the world to see.   

The challenge to Internet freedom posed by China is formidable and calls for a bold response. To this end, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will unveil a new technology-policy initiative on Jan. 21. But merely stressing the importance of Internet freedom will not be enough. The U.S. government must be prepared to back up its ideals with bold action.

The Chinese government censors the Internet in multiple ways, using extensive, multi-layered systems. It blocks social networking applications at critical times, as it did with Twitter on the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre; it filters politically sensitive content; and it uses human censors to shut down online discussions about human rights abuses, official corruption, and other forbidden subjects. The regime also pressures private companies, such as blog hosts, to police their users.

But the assault goes well beyond censorship. The Chinese government also conducts pervasive online surveillance and uses sophisticated technology to monitor and intercept emails. State security has forced detained dissidents to give up their passwords, allowing agents to access their address books and identify all of their contacts. It has also subjected cyber-dissidents to arrest, prosecution, and harsh jail sentences. Through this combination of censorship, surveillance, and retribution against dissent, the Chinese government maintains the world’s most extensive system for stifling political speech online. 

Clinton’s Internet freedom initiative will have limited effect if it merely re-packages existing policy. The importance of Internet freedom is well known — it was often articulated by the George W. Bush administration — and $20 million is already allocated for programs to help human rights and democracy activists evade censorship and maintain their privacy in countries such as China, Iran, and Syria. Moreover, as part of this year’s appropriations bill, Congress has pumped another $30 million into these programs.

But this doesn’t go far enough. Although substantial, these programs are largely reactive. They aim to mitigate the effects of online censorship and surveillance. They don’t proactively challenge the ability of China and other repressive regimes, like Iran, to control the Internet in the first place. A truly bold Internet freedom initiative would directly take on the censors and push back the assault on Internet freedom globally. First, the United States must lead the world’s democracies in collective diplomatic efforts to press for a more open Internet and respond to violations of Internet users’ rights with the same — or greater — vigor as other human rights abuses.

Second, the government should step in to defend U.S. companies when they come under pressure from authoritarian regimes to hand over  Internet users’ personal data.

Third, multilateral export controls should be enacted by the U.S. Congress and European parliaments to stop the use of U.S. and European technology to censor online political content and intercept electronic communications. The sale of advanced surveillance technology to authoritarian governments, such as Nokia-Siemens’ sale of network technology to Iran’s telecom monopoly, needs to end. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which controls the country’s telecoms, is no doubt using Nokia-Siemens technology to crack down on the pro-democracy green movement.

Fourth, Clinton and U.S. President Barack Obama should speak out publicly about arrested bloggers and cyber-dissidents and raise these cases in their meetings with foreign leaders. Their reticence to mention these victims by name gives the impression that they don’t care about these courageous activists. Obama’s recent online dialogue with Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez was the type of gesture that should be repeated.

Finally, Clinton must put serious institutional weight behind her Internet freedom initiative.  She should appoint an ambassador at large to spearhead the initiative and build the diplomatic coalitions required to move it forward.

In the face of the increasingly brazen and aggressive assault on Internet freedom, a bold U.S. effort is needed to reverse the current restrictions, pre-empt the emergence of new online threats, and make the Internet a force for freedom throughout the world.

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