The Internet war

Monday, January 25, 2010

THE INTERNET has produced a vast expansion of free speech and access to information around the world. But for China and Russia, it has also become a means for waging a covert war against other nations, including the United States -- a brazen effort to steal secrets and plant malware. For those countries and for a host of other authoritarian regimes, Internet freedom is a threat, to be countered by censorship, the imprisonment of bloggers and domestic spying.

The U.S. government has been grappling with these challenges for years. But it has not done enough to fight back politically by making Internet freedom an issue in diplomatic and commercial relations and by seeking the international censure of those who violate it. That's why the speech delivered Thursday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was so important. Ms. Clinton made it admirably clear that abusers such as China will no longer get a free pass in U.S. public diplomacy or in international forums.

China is worthy of special attention in part because a large portion of the cyberattacks on U.S. military and other government agencies originate there and in part because of the restrictions that it places on U.S. companies that offer Internet services to its citizens. Google's announcement this month that it and many other U.S. companies had been the object of cyberattacks from China and that it would no longer censor its China-based search engine finally brought that issue to the forefront. To the administration's credit, Ms. Clinton repeated a demand that China investigate and explain the cyberattack, backed Google's stance and called on other American companies to adopt the same position.

"Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere," Ms. Clinton said. "American companies need to make a principled stand. This needs to be part of our national brand." This raises an immediate issue for Microsoft and Apple, two companies that continue to censor their Chinese content. The administration and Congress should explore what steps can be taken to ensure that these companies and others follow the no-censorship rule wherever they operate.

Ms. Clinton pledged that in addition to defending its own companies and cyberspace, the United States would take measures to help human rights advocates, political dissidents and civil society groups overcome their governments' censorship. Until now, the State Department has been negligent in this area; it has misspent -- or failed to spend at all -- money appropriated by Congress for firewall-busting.

A group called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium has been denied funding, even though it says that it has a proven record of breaching the firewalls of both China and Iran. A State Department official told The Post that the group was refused help because it is connected to the banned Falun Gong movement and "the Chinese would go ballistic if we did that." But other officials told us that is not the case; they said that they hoped that the consortium would apply for future funding, which the State Department sensibly plans to spread, venture-capital style, among various groups and technologies.

Regardless of who is funded, Beijing will probably "go ballistic." A Foreign Ministry statement issued in response to Ms. Clinton's speech already threatened that the new agenda could be "harmful to China-U.S. relations." And perhaps it should be. Far better that the United States raise issues of Internet freedom, discrimination against U.S. companies and cyberwar stemming from China directly and openly with the Communist leadership than allow Beijing to poison and abuse the Internet without paying a price.

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