Clinton calls for 'serious conversation' about Internet freedom

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the Internet can allow people to achieve great things, but also do great harm. She says now is the time to discuss what if any rules should be in place concerning the Web. (Feb. 15)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 5:12 PM

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Tuesday for "a serious conversation" about rules to ensure an open Internet, noting it had helped power the pro-democracy uprising in Egypt but also served as a tool for terrorists and repressive governments.

Clinton's speech, her second major address on Internet freedom, reflected how diplomats have been scrambling to keep up with the growing political impact of social media worldwide - most evident recently in the anti-government demonstrations in the Middle East.

Noting that two billion people were now online, Clinton said the United States supported the "freedom to connect" - but that there should be some limits.

"To maintain an Internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that will guide us. What rules exist - and should not exist - and why; what behaviors should be encouraged and discouraged, and how," she told an audience at George Washington University.

Clinton offered few specifics of what those rules should be. But she said that Internet freedom had to be balanced against a need for security from cyber-criminals and terrorists. And she said the Internet's culture of transparency shouldn't lead to disclosure of confidential information, like the trove of State Department documents published by WikiLeaks.

Critics have charged that the State Department has issued contradictory messages in advocating Internet freedom while harshly criticizing the WikiLeaks disclosures. Clinton called that a "false debate," saying that the WikiLeaks release involved stolen government documents.

"WikiLeaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom," she said.

Clinton warned countries that by limiting Internet access, they would ultimately harm their economy and create pent-up demands for freedom that would one day boil over. She singled out China and Syria as examples of what she called nations whose Internet restrictions would eventually boomerang.

"There isn't an economic Internet and a social Internet and a political Internet - there's just the Internet. And maintaining barriers that attempt to change this reality entails a variety of costs - moral, political and economic," Clinton said. "Countries may be able to absorb these costs for a time, but we believe they're unsustainable in the long run."

Clinton also took aim, however, at some Western countries that have sought mechanisms to limit "hate speech" on the Internet, saying they could offer repressive governments "an excuse to violate freedom of expression."

Clinton's speech came as U.S. diplomats are trying to work with European countries to come up with common Internet freedom principles. The Obama administration is also working on an international strategy for cyberspace, which Clinton said would be completed this year.

Critics in Congress and non-governmental groups have charged that the State Department has essentially been all talk, no action on Internet freedom, pointing in particular to the department's slow pace in spending $30 million provided by Congress last year to help people in countries like China and Iran access the Web.

Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Tuesday for the money to be taken from the State Department and given to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees radio and television programs beamed into countries like Cuba and Iran.

In her speech, Clinton noted the complaints about the State Department's pace and its decision to not dedicate all $30 million to technologies that allow citizens to break through firewalls imposed by repressive governments.

"We believe there is no silver bullet in the struggle against Internet repression. There is no 'app' for that," she said.

She added that the State Department planned to take a "comprehensive" approach that would include training for Internet users to protect themselves from cyberattacks. The funding would go to a variety of technologies, so that "if repressive governments figure out how to target one, others are available," Clinton said.

The State Department recently began sending Twitter messages in Arabic and Farsi, in an indication of its desire to capitalize on the reach of spreading social media.

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