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Clinton@State: Seriously, #NetFreedom's a Big Deal

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, February 15 2011

At DC's George Washington University today, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech today titled "Internet Rights And Wrongs: Choices & Challenges In A Networked World;” photo credit: U.S. State Department

Calling the Internet "the public space of the 21st century" and the modern world's hybrid, "town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house, and nightclub," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered today her second major address on the topic of Internet freedom, as the State Department has taken to calling their work in the field. In this speech, held this afternoon DC's George Washington University, Clinton made no real news nor broke new ground. But, in a talk that managed to tackle everything from the Wikileaks conundrum to Joe Lieberman's mouth to unspent circumvention technology budgets, Clinton was able to leave a lasting impression: that United States extends its ideals to the Internet, and that when it comes to global politics and foreign policy, the online space won't be ceded or ignored.

"This isn't a bet on computers or mobile phones," said Clinton, in one of the speech's more tweet worthy lines. "It's a bet on people." (One such person, a protestor in GW's Jack Morton Auditorium, disrupted proceedings at the get go by yelling things like "this is America." Clinton appeared as if she would have been more perturbed should her BlackBerry have loaded slowly.)

Matching her "Internet freedom" agenda to real world events, Clinton applied that anthro-centric theme to 2009's protests in Iran and this month's revolution in Egypt, two of the more major global happenings when it comes to the power of the Internet to create on the ground change. In both instances, said Clinton, "people protested because of a deep frustration with the political and economic conditions of their lives. They stood and marched and chanted, and the authorities tracked and blocked and detained them. The Internet did not  do any of those things.  People did."

But that's not to say, said Clinton, that the Internet was thus somehow irrelevant -- or that it a tool only for dissidents and not, a la Evgeny Morozov, the dictators they were protesting. "The ways that both citizens  and the authorities used the Internet," said the secretary, "reflected the power of  connection technologies as an accelerant of political, social, and economic change -- and in some hands, to slow or  extinguish that change." She went on, in a slightly contradictory way: "There is a  debate underway in some circles about whether the Internet is a force for liberation or  repression.  But  that debate is largely beside the point." Clinton's point, it seems, was that people are, often equipped with technologies, resisting incursions upon the sort of human dignities upon which Americans place great import. "These values that ought to drive us to think about the road ahead," said Clinton.

And as for those repressive regimes? They should be looking down that road, too. Clinton predicted that leaders of such enterprises will find themselves with a "dictator's dilemma," where the bounties of the economics-conveying Internet can't be severed from the "everything else Internet" upon which their citizens do things like, say, spread ideas on Twitter and organizing political protests on Facebook.

Wikileaks, of course, was nearly unavoidable, and Clinton didn't bother trying. She made the argument that while "on the spectrum of Internet freedom, we place ourselves on the side of openness," there's some room left at the pole. Employing another metaphor, Clinton made the case that "tipping the scale over completely serves no one's interests, and the public's least of it." As to the logistics of Wikileaks, said Clinton, that the documents involved were stolen as much as they would have been had they been spirited out by the humble technology of the briefcase. "The fact that Wikileaks  used the Internet is not the reason we criticized it," said Clinton.

When it comes to "Internet freedom," one of the stickier points of the Wikileaks situation is, from the government perspective, former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman's call for tech companies like Amazon and Tableau to think about disassociating themselves from the leak clearinghouse and its allies. Clinton set up a framework for thinking about the episode, though without naming the former Connecticut senator by name. "Public officials are part of our  country’s public debates, but there is a line between expressing views and coercing conduct," said Clinton. Left unanswered: which side of that line Lieberman fell on. Whichever it was, Clinton took pains to make sure she and the White House weren't standing next to him there. "Any business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own politics regarding Wikileaks was not at the direction or the suggestion of the Obama administration."

With a report out today finding that the State Department has spent just $20 million of the $50 million that has been allocated towards developing circumvention technologies that allow people in repressive places to route around Internet restrictions and surveillance (a spending level that the New York Times' Nick Kristof yesterday branded "very sad"), Clinton rejected the implication that the State Department has been hanging on too tightly to their circumvention dollar. "Some have criticized us  for not pouring funding into a single technology," she said, "but there is no silver bullet in  the struggle against Internet repression." The secretary said that here the State Department is taking a page from venture capitalists, finding and funding a wide variety of potentially promising technologies, in part so as not to give dictators a single circumvention tool to combat.

Left mostly unaddressed in Secretary Clinton's speech on Internet freedom: the political implications of the United States partnering with, favoring, or backing activists and other actors in other countries. There's a decent chance that Clinton and her allies might find more to say on the topic soon; Glenn Beck devoted a lengthy segment last night to covering the Alliance for Youth Movements, an organization with its roots in the State Department's "21st Century Statecraft" push, and its work with young activists, including those in Egypt. Clinton's speech also did little to resolve questions implied by her focus on online freedoms: does the U.S. now consider networked bad behavior as bad or worse than its offline counterparts? For example, how does kicking people off the Internet rank with, say, restricting people's ability to gather in actual town squares?

Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Dan Baer and Secretary Clinton's senior advisor on innovation Alec Ross added some insight into how the State Department is thinking about the thinking behind the agenda in an online video chat they hosted shortly after Clinton's speech. Baer said that Clinton's "Internet freedom" agenda is rooted in the idea that universal rights apply in the online world. "These are old values applied to new technologies," said Ross. "At the end of the day, the actual rights framework isn't just years old, or decades old, but centuries old."

Clinton did include two nuggets of newsy news in her speech. The first is that, Clinton said, State Department will be adding native-language Twitter accounts in Chinese, Russian, and Hindi, adding to the Farsi (@USAdarFarsi) and Arabic (@USAbilAraby) accounts rolled out last week and longer standing accounts in French and Spanish. And Clinton announced that she's added to the State bureaucracy an Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, an office focused on internal and external collaboration that will be helmed by Christopher Painter, formerly a senior director for cyber security for the White House's National Security Council.

But in the main, the Clinton speech seemed intended to affirm a simple point, one made explicit by Ross in his followup chat. "Hillary Clinton really took Internet freedom from something relatively obscure and elevated it to a foreign policy issue," said Ross. "Internet freedom really is a big deal."

[Secretary Clinton's remarks, via NPR, as prepared for delivery]

(Some of the above quotes were double-checked against Clinton's prepared remarks.)