By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010; A14
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Thursday for a global Internet free of censorship and demanded that China investigate claims by Google that e-mail accounts belonging to human rights activists had been targeted by hackers.
"We look to Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough investigation of the cyber intrusions that led Google to make this announcement," she said. "We also look for that investigation and its results to be transparent."
The agency has sent a formal request, known as a demarche, to the Chinese government asking for the review, according to a State Department official.
In a sweeping "Internet freedom" speech, Clinton also called for nations to band together to punish cyber attacks meant to quiet citizens and disrupt businesses abroad.
"Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation," she said. "By reinforcing that message, we can create norms of behavior among states and encourage respect for the global networked commons."
Clinton's speech, delivered at the Newseum in Washington, had been scheduled for weeks. But it attracted greater interest after Google threatened last week to withdraw from China because its Gmail program had been hacked by people searching for sensitive information on Chinese activists. In a statement, China's vice minister of foreign affairs, He Yafei, downplayed the incident, saying "The Google case shouldn't be linked to the two governments or bilateral relations. . . . Otherwise it is over-interpreting."
Clinton's push comes as more people are embracing technology, using Internet-enabled cellphones and Web networks such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to exchange information and organize and publicize protests. The rise in such communications has prompted governments in places such as Iran, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Tunisia to try to block online traffic.
"Virtual walls are cropping up in place of visible walls," Clinton said. "With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world."
Clinton said the United States would push to preserve the ability of anyone to connect and freely transfer information over the Web. While short on details for how that goal would be achieved, her speech sends a signal that technology plays an important role in U.S. diplomacy.
"The key is not to think of this just as censorship but that this is a set of interrelated problems that have to do with connectivity," said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law at Harvard University and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
The State Department said it planned to work more closely with non-government organizations and technology companies on the issue. Clinton said the government would put up $15 million for grass-roots efforts to create Web applications that help stop violence against women and children and allow people to find ways to communicate over the Web even when their governments attempt to block them.
Already, the government has sought to take advantage of the ubiquity of mobile phones in the developing world to press initiatives that rely on text messages to alert law enforcement of drug violence in Mexico and to warn women and children of approaching militia in the Congo. "As I speak to you today, government censors are working furiously to erase my words from the records of history," Clinton said.
Analysts, though, say the United States is an outlier on speech rights, with many of its allies disinclined to adopt strict principles. The South Korean government, for instance, requires users of YouTube and commenters on blogs to register their identities. That could put the United States in a delicate position as it tries to balance its interest in human rights with geopolitical interests.
The United States is also not without its own free speech controversies. Some academics were quick to point out that the FBI has allegedly pressured phone companies for records on thousands of account holders, citing terrorism emergencies.
"One of big questions around the speech is, 'To what degree are we willing to hold ourselves to these standards?' " said Clay Shirky, a new media professor at New York University.