Clinton warns governments that limiting Internet will backfire

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned governments from China to Syria on Tuesday that blocking the Internet ultimately would backfire, damaging their economies and creating pent-up demands that would boil over in demonstrations like those that have swept the Middle East and North Africa.

Clinton's speech, planned weeks ago and billed as a major address on Internet freedom, came against the backdrop of the mass protests that toppled the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia. Aides said Clinton wanted to take advantage of the attention being paid to the protesters' use of Facebook and Twitter in order to highlight broader issues.

"We believe that governments who have erected barriers to Internet freedom . . . will eventually find themselves boxed in. They'll face a dictator's dilemma and have to choose between letting the walls fall or paying the price to keep them standing," Clinton said.

Clinton has been a sometimes breathless champion of technologies such as cellphones and the Internet, urging audiences around the globe to use them to expose government corruption and help the poor.

But her speech Tuesday was sober, noting the challenges of balancing Internet freedom against the threats posed by cybercrime, online hate speech and the disclosure of confidential information.

"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," Clinton told the audience at George Washington University.

She did not lay out specific rules; her aides said Clinton's goal was to create a framework to discuss Internet freedom. She also was trying to respond to leaders who say control of the Internet is necessary for security or to avoid the use of incendiary speech, aides said.

Clinton said governments that arrested bloggers or limited the Internet "may claim to be seeking security . . . but they are taking the wrong path." She added that they might be able to "hold back the full expression of their people's yearnings for a while, but not forever."

Clinton's speech reflected the increasing attention being paid to Internet freedom in U.S. diplomacy. She announced the creation of a new office - coordinator for cyber issues - to be filled by Christopher Painter, a former White House cyber expert.

She also noted that the State Department began sending Twitter messages in Arabic and Farsi last week and soon would produce them in Chinese, Hindi and Russian, in addition to Spanish and French.

In interviews, Internet freedom advocates gave Clinton's speech high marks for its nuance and its support of "the freedom to connect." But Ethan Zuckerman o f Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society said he was disappointed that she didn't call on social-media companies to take more responsibility for keeping the Internet open and safe for activists.

Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch panned Clinton's defense of the U.S. government response to the WikiLeaks disclosure of State Department cables. Clinton said the U.S. denunciation of the leaks wasn't at odds with the Internet freedom campaign, explaining that the scandal "began with an act of theft" of U.S. documents.

"That was never the controversy," Ganesan said. "The controversy is, was it appropriate for lawmakers to threaten grievous harm against WikiLeaks and some of their staff, because they were putting information out there?"

Clinton's speech coincided with the release of a report by Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) that criticizes the State Department for not moving faster to spend $30 million provided by Congress last year to help citizens to break through government firewalls in countries such as China and Iran.

Lugar, the leading Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for that funding to be administered instead by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

State Department officials say the window for spending the money runs until the third quarter of this year. Clinton said the funds should not be spent on a single firewall-piercing technology, as some lawmakers have urged, but instead go to a variety of tools, "so if repressive governments figure out how to target one, others are available."


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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