Marc Lynch

The Internet Freedom Agenda

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as everyone on the internet knows, delivered a speech yesterday outlining America’s commitment to “internet freedom.” Evgeny Morozov, Ethan Zuckerman, and many others already have posted some good responses. But from where I sit, a good way to make sense of the international politics of Clinton’s speech is to juxtapose ...

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives a speech on internet freedom at the Newseum January 21, 2010 in Washington, DC. Five United States senators are publicly urging Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to move faster to support organizations that are helping people in countries with restrictive internet policies circumvent those policies. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as everyone on the internet knows, delivered a speech yesterday outlining America’s commitment to “internet freedom.” Evgeny Morozov, Ethan Zuckerman, and many others already have posted some good responses. But from where I sit, a good way to make sense of the international politics of Clinton’s speech is to juxtapose it with another article published yesterday by two key Bush administration public diplomacy officials, James Glassman and Michael Doran, calling on the U.S. to use the soft power of the internet to promote regime change in Iran. The problem for the U.S. is that when Clinton talks, most of the world hears Glassman and Doran. The problem for Glassman and Doran is that when they talk this way, it makes it less likely to work… and opens up a whole basket of moral hazard issues. 

Clinton’s big cyber-speech was both more and less than expected. Most of the speech was a cyber-utopian’s dream, waxing poetic about the liberating and connecting effects of the internet and new social media forms. It relied heavily on well-known anecdotes and failed to consider counter-examples, but what the heck — it was a political speech, not an academic paper. And it predictably mentioned certain popular cases (Egypt, China, Iran) while ignoring internet crackdowns in other friendly cases (Jordan just last week). After all the build up, there didn’t seem to be much there by way of actual policy initiatives though, beyond some small-bore ideas. The speech showed that the State Department “gets it” (in the annoying lingo I often hear) but not really that it has much of an idea what do do with “it.” 

But still, I liked a great deal of it — particularly the  decision to focus on what I’ve often called the “bill of rights freedoms” rather than directly on “democracy.” Supporting universal principles of freedom of speech and assembly (“the freedom to connect”) is more realistic, more empowering, and ultimately a better approach than high-blown rhetoric about “democracy” without any accompanying ability to deliver. The speech was framed in a way which could genuinely engage with widely held global norms, and align the U.S. with major trends across the globe.  

And it could inspire many of the online, activist youth out there in the world who are in fact keen to be involved in these kinds of dialogues and partnerships — though let’s hope that the State Department already has some “shovel ready” projects this time so that they aren’t disappointed and frustrated by the absence of deeds matching words. Does the State Department plan, say, to push hard on the Jordanian government’s decision to impose censorship on websites and online publications? What exactly does it intend to do if one of those brave bloggers gets arrested and tortured tomorrow — anything different from what it did the day before the speech?

Another problem is that the speech acknowledged but did not really grapple with the dual-edged nature of the internet. After noting that the internet can be used by repressive regimes as well as by protestors, by al-Qaeda as well as by liberal Muslims, Clinton declared that

“We need to put these tools in the hands of people around the world who will use them to advance democracy and human rights, fight climate change and epidemics, build global support for President Obama’s goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and encourage sustainable economic development.”  

Well, sure — but the internet doesn’t care if the people who use it support President Obama’s agenda. And trying to put the tools only into their hands would kind of contradict that whole “freedom to connect” and “freedom of expression” thing.

Which brings me to Glassman and Doran, who both held important public diplomacy positions in the previous administration and have long been enthusiastic advocates of using the internet. For Glassman and Doran, the point is not abstract, universal freedoms — it is using those tools against an adversary. They urge the U.S. to use the new media to undermine the Iranian regime and to help the Green Movement by providing moral and educational support, increasing communications within Iran and between Iran and the outside world, refuting Iranian propaganda, and imposing harsh sanctions while explaining the regime’s culpability for the resulting suffering.

Set aside the question of whether these steps would work to undermine the Iranian regime or strengthen the Green Movement (parts of their suggestions make sense and are already being done, while I have my doubts about other parts such as the idea that the U.S. could successful frame harsh sanctions as the regime’s fault). The key point here is that internet freedom, which Clinton presents as an abstract universal good, is here clearly and unapologetically a weapon to be wielded against the Iranian regime. For better or for worse, most of the world probably assumes that Clinton has the same goal in mind as Glassman and Doran, even if she doesn’t say so. And that’s a major problem if you think about it. When the U.S. says to Iran or to other adversarial regimes that it should respect “freedom of internet expression” or “freedom of internet connectivity,” those regimes will assume that it is really trying to use those as a rhetorical cover for hostile actions. And if Glassman and Doran have their way, they will be right

Obama’s engagement strategy and refusal to engage in the ritual denunciations and demonizing rhetoric used by the Bush administration and demanded by his critics actually makes it marginally more likely that it could quietly support the valiant efforts of protestors such as those in Iran. But only marginally — because the legacy of the past looms large, and Obama has not been able to establish that his America is fundamentally different from the past decades, especially on Iran.

Finally, a point about moral hazard which I’ve made before. It’s great to support and encourage internet activists and protestors of all sorts. But such support can lead them to take some very risky, dangerous activities against their brutal governments, perhaps in the expectation that the United States will protect them from the consequences. Will it? If a blogger inspired by Clinton’s speech decides to launch a corruption monitoring website, and is summarily imprisoned and tortured, does the U.S. have any plan in place to protect her? I hope they have thought about these questions and anticipated such scenarios before they raised the flag.

Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark