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[Editorial] Reading Hillary Clinton on Internet Freedom and Edward Snowden

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, July 2 2013

German Pirate Party demonstration in Berlin during President Obama's recent visit (Photo by Mike Herbst, Flickr)

A week ago, during a speech in Los Angeles, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's "outrageous behavior" and criticized China for allowing him to leave Hong Kong.

One wonders how she would square her remarks with her eloquent advocacy in the past of "internet freedom" and the "freedom to connect."

In January 2010, in her first major speech on these topics, she said, "new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas."

In that speech, she evoked Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms: "freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear" and declared that "we find an urgent need to protect these freedoms on the digital frontiers of the 21st century." She also decried countries that prevent their citizens from accessing parts of the web, censored search results or blog posts, or violated the privacy of their citizens by snooping on their online conversations, stating that these kinds of actions contravened the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

A year later, Clinton gave another major speech on this topic, renewing and expanding her call: "Together, the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online comprise what I’ve called the freedom to connect. The United States supports this freedom for people everywhere, and we have called on other nations to do the same."

In that speech, she wrestled with the delicate balance between liberty and security, arguing that they were not in opposition but in fact reinforced each other. The United States, Clinton said, would take care to combat anyone using the Internet for evil while ensuring that it did not at the same time "constrict[] the openness that is the Internet's greatest attribute."

Other less enlightened countries have taken a different approach, she noted:

Security is often invoked as a justification for harsh crackdowns on freedom. Now, this tactic is not new to the digital age, but it has new resonance as the internet has given governments new capacities for tracking and punishing human rights advocates and political dissidents. Governments that arrest bloggers, pry into the peaceful activities of their citizens, and limit their access to the internet may claim to be seeking security. In fact, they may even mean it as they define it. But they are taking the wrong path.

And she went further, insisting that the freedom to connect required security for online communication. She said:

…in addition to being a public space, the internet is also a channel for private communications. And for that to continue, there must be protection for confidential communication online. Think of all the ways in which people and organizations rely on confidential communications to do their jobs. Businesses hold confidential conversations when they’re developing new products to stay ahead of their competitors. Journalists keep the details of some sources confidential to protect them from exposure or retribution. And governments also rely on confidential communication online as well as offline. The existence of connection technologies may make it harder to maintain confidentiality, but it does not alter the need for it.

[Emphases added.]

Thanks to Snowden's revelations, along with confirming statements by American authorities, we now know that the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been collecting and storing the online and phone communications records of millions of American and foreign people. These activities appear to violate the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which protect our rights of speech and association, guard us against unreasonable searches or seizures and safeguard our privacy.

If it is acceptable for the United States to conduct these activities, collecting en masse the private communications of its own citizens and others, why is it wrong for any other country to also do so?

So much for protecting the freedom to connect.