Netizens Unite

An advocate for Washington's "Internet Freedom" agenda has second thoughts.

557737_185-letters-netizens-unite2.jpg
557737_185-letters-netizens-unite2.jpg

Evgeny Morozov and I disagree fairly frequently about issues relating to the effect of the Internet on public life. Whatever disagreements we may have about the potential for democratization, however, I must reluctantly agree with the conclusion of his latest article: that the United States has not merely done a poor job of establishing digital freedoms elsewhere in the world, but may in fact have damaged that cause ("Freedom.gov," January/February 2011).

This is a painful realignment for me, as I was an early participant in and supporter of the State Department's "Internet Freedom" agenda. That agenda's success has always depended on two conditions: America's willingness both to be evenhanded in its rhetoric directed at other countries and to insist on tolerant treatment of public speech by the commercial firms that provide the backbone of public speech online -- Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest. As Morozov notes, in the year since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton inaugurated the agenda, the United States has underperformed on both counts.

Washington undermined its claims to leadership when it allowed commercial firms like Amazon and PayPal to cut off payments to WikiLeaks with less due process than is required to get a firm on the terrorist watch list. The United States was likewise hypocritical when it responded to the recent persecution of Tunisian Internet activists with relative silence, after having so vocally objected to the suppression of free speech in Iran over the past year.

Evgeny Morozov and I disagree fairly frequently about issues relating to the effect of the Internet on public life. Whatever disagreements we may have about the potential for democratization, however, I must reluctantly agree with the conclusion of his latest article: that the United States has not merely done a poor job of establishing digital freedoms elsewhere in the world, but may in fact have damaged that cause ("Freedom.gov," January/February 2011).

This is a painful realignment for me, as I was an early participant in and supporter of the State Department’s "Internet Freedom" agenda. That agenda’s success has always depended on two conditions: America’s willingness both to be evenhanded in its rhetoric directed at other countries and to insist on tolerant treatment of public speech by the commercial firms that provide the backbone of public speech online — Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest. As Morozov notes, in the year since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton inaugurated the agenda, the United States has underperformed on both counts.

Washington undermined its claims to leadership when it allowed commercial firms like Amazon and PayPal to cut off payments to WikiLeaks with less due process than is required to get a firm on the terrorist watch list. The United States was likewise hypocritical when it responded to the recent persecution of Tunisian Internet activists with relative silence, after having so vocally objected to the suppression of free speech in Iran over the past year.

The U.S. "Internet Freedom" agenda was always meant to be a long effort. A year is much too short a time frame to offer a definitive verdict on it. But unless the United States exhibits the same restraint it expects of other countries and objects equally loudly to the censorious behavior of its allies as it does its enemies, it’s hard to see how its support of Internet freedom can succeed.

Clay Shirky
Adjunct Professor
New York University
New York, N.Y.

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