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Clinton: The U.S. Sides with a Networked World

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, January 22 2010

When the crowd gathered yesterday morning in Washington's Newseum to hear Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's big speech on the topic "Internet freedom" included Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, Here Comes Everybody author Clay Shirky, Delaware Democrat Ted Kaufman, Meetup founder Scott Heiferman, US Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin, the Atlantic's Jim Fallows, the State Department's new media team (Alec Ross, Katie Dowd, Jared Cohen), DC-based representatives from Facebook, and Oscar Morales, the Colombian man who used Facebook to rally millions in the streets to protest his country's leftist guerilla oppressors, it was a pretty good sign that you were in for an interesting day. It was perhaps because the crowd was itself so intriguing that it took some time for the audience to realize that Clinton had silently made her way to the stage; it was a split second before they began applauding for the Secretary of State.

What quickly became so attention grabbing about Clinton's speech, at least of our purposes, was how full-throated a defense it was of the potential of a fully networked society and fully networked world. We'll be pulling out some of the more noteworthy parts of the hour-long speech, but you can read the full text (or watch the video of it) here.

Secretary Clinton -- just back from meeting with government officials in Haiti and touring the destruction there -- has, somewhat unpredictably, emerged as the point person in the Administration on whatever has to do with the Internet, mobile phones, and so on. The more than two dozen million dollars that the Red Cross has raised for Haiti through the "Text 90999" program, with a giant push from the State Department, has only burnished her cred on that front. Year One of the Obama Administration, of course, has been marked by grumbling heard about how Barack Obama, who as a presidential candidate seemed so utterly steeped in the idea of the intensely networked world, has retreated as president to a more traditional politics that is centered around "big men" and analog ways of coming to political agreement that would be altogether familiar to Bill Clinton, if not Dwight Eisenhower. Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton planted a flag firmly in Yochai Benkler territory, becoming what is likely the most senior U.S. official to ever give voice to an Internet-driven world view of an interconnected planet. For example, here's Clinton on how the networked world functions:

The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet. When something happens in Haiti or Hunan, the rest of us learn about it in real time -- from real people.

Though the speech was wide-ranging (and arguably somewhat unfocused), Clinton's address was structured around the idea of Five Freedoms. The first four you're probably familiar with: freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. To those, Clinton tacked on a fifth freedom -- "the freedom to connect":

The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate. Once you’re on the internet, you don’t need to be a tycoon or a rock star to have a huge impact on society.

The Google in China situation was, of course, on everyone's minds yesterday. Perhaps surprisingly, Clinton didn't shy away from commenting on the dust up. For starters, she issued some fairly generalized statements about why it's bad that China doesn't allow its people access to the full range of information available on the global Internet:

The internet has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it is fabulous. There are so many people in China now online. But countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century.

Note "the basic rights of internet users." That's significant, it seems. Clinton started to flesh out the idea that "internet users" have a set of rights and expectations that aren't just limited to the same universal freedoms that the U.S. has long spoken about supporting (even if those rights haven't always been defended in practice, of course). Here's an example. The most obvious way of making the case why it's wrong for China to censor the Internet is your basic free speech argument. But Clinton took it further. Networked tools are qualitatively different. Search engines are something new, something different, she said. If people don't have access to the power of that technology (read, Google), they're less empowered to control their fates than they could and should be:

The freedom to connect to these technologies can help transform societies, but it is also critically important to individuals. I was recently moved by the story of a doctor -- and I won’t tell you what country he was from -- who was desperately trying to diagnose his daughter’s rare medical condition. He consulted with two dozen specialists, but he still didn’t have an answer. But he finally identified the condition, and found a cure, by using an internet search engine. That’s one of the reasons why unfettered access to search engine technology is so important in individuals’ lives.

There were some somewhat odd notes. Most notable was where Clinton talked about anonymity on the Internet as a sticky problem that needs to be solved. It was a reminder that the devil will be in the details when anyone attempts to translate the vision she's articulating here into real world practice. Her evocation of the dangers of "stolen intellectual property" pulled the high-minded speech back to the ground a bit. It's important to remember that the real, pitched political battles of the last two decades in technology policy aren't -- poof! -- magically erased by one speech, however powerful. Clinton:

And we must also grapple with the issue of anonymous speech. Those who use the internet to recruit terrorists or distribute stolen intellectual property cannot divorce their online actions from their real world identities. But these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes.

And it wasn't all sweetness and light, at least when it comes to what connected peoples might actually do with that ability:

[A]mid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns, or nuclear power can either energize a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill. The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable al-Qaida to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent. And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.

Clinton finished up her speech by announcing some concrete steps forward. The State Department, she said, is going to be handing out actual grant money for the development of new tools that both help people around the world get online, and help bring about the positive, concrete change the Internet makes possible:

Let me give you one example. Let’s say I want to create a mobile phone application that would allow people to rate government ministries, including ours, on their responsiveness and efficiency and also to ferret out and report corruption. The hardware required to make this idea work is already in the hands of billions of potential users. And the software involved would be relatively inexpensive to develop and deploy.

If people took advantage of this tool, it would help us target our foreign assistance spending, improve lives, and encourage foreign investment in countries with responsible governments. However, right now, mobile application developers have no financial assistance to pursue that project on their own, and the State Department currently lacks a mechanism to make it happen. But this initiative should help resolve that problem and provide long-term dividends from modest investments in innovation. We’re going to work with experts to find the best structure for this venture, and we’ll need the talent and resources of technology companies and nonprofits in order to get the best results most quickly. So for those of you in the room who have this kind of talent, expertise, please consider yourselves invited to help us.

In the meantime, there are companies, individuals, and institutions working on ideas and applications that could already advance our diplomatic and development objectives. And the State Department will be launching an innovation competition to give this work an immediate boost. We’ll be asking Americans to send us their best ideas for applications and technologies that help break down language barriers, overcome illiteracy, connect people to the services and information they need. Microsoft, for example, has already developed a prototype for a digital doctor that could help provide medical care in isolated rural communities. We want to see more ideas like that. And we’ll work with the winners of the competition and provide grants to help build their ideas to scale.

Those are some of the highlights. But it's worth taking some time to take in the full speech. Agree or disagree with Clinton's address, find it inspiring or impractical, it represents a major figure in the U.S. political scene laying claim to a forward-looking vision of the networked world as it is, and as it could be. That alone makes it worth a read.

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