In a defining speech today on Internet Freedom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton extended foreign policy to the Internet, calling it a “global networked commons.” Her speech harked back to Franklin Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech, and updated each one (Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom From Want, Freedom From Fear) to apply to the Internet. She also added a new freedom, the Freedom to Connect:
The freedom to connect – the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other. The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly in cyber space.
Apparently, it is now the U.S. government’s foreign policy to protect and promote these freedoms throughout the information “commons” which extend beyond our physical borders. It is also U.S. foreign policy to encourage corporations, particularly those in the technology industry, to protect these freedoms. Call it corporate statecraft. Towards the end of the speech, Clinton applauded Google’s recent decision to rethink whether it will continue to operate in China following coordinated cyber attacks on its operations there. Not only that, she encouraged other companies to follow Google’s lead:
I hope that refusal to support politically-motivated censorship will become a trademark characteristic of American technology companies. It should be part of our national brand. I’m confident that consumers worldwide will reward firms that respect these principles.
Certainly, the Internet knows no national boundaries. But trying to impose our ideas of freedom onto other countries, especially dictatorships, may end up being a futile effort. Nevertheless, Clinton explains why she thinks it is important to try:
Ultimately, this issue isn’t just about information freedom; it’s about what kind of world we’re going to inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that unites and benefits us all. Or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors.
Going through the various freedoms, below I’ve distilled some of what she had to say. On Freedom Of Expression, she notes:
Blogs, email, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas – and created new targets for censorship.
. . . Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks. They have expunged words, names and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. . . . With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world. Beyond this partition, viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day.
On Freedom Of Religion:
Just as these technologies must not be used to punish peaceful political speech, they must not be used to persecute or silence religious minorities.
On Freedom From Want:
. . . the internet can serve as a great equalizer. By providing people with access to knowledge and potential markets, networks can create opportunity where none exists. . . . A connection to global information networks is like an on ramp to modernity. . . . Information networks have become a great leveler, and we should use them to help lift people out of poverty.
On Freedom From Fear:
As we work to advance these freedoms, we must also work against those who use communication networks as tools of disruption and fear. . . . Governments and citizens must have confidence that the networks at the core of their national security and economic prosperity are safe and resilient. This is about more than petty hackers who deface websites.
The State Department is actively developing tools to help citizens of other countries express themselves freely on the Internet and circumvent censorship. Clinton also announced that the State Department will launch an “innovation competition” to help promote these freedoms abroad:
We’ll be asking Americans to send us their best ideas for applications and technologies that help to break down language barriers, overcome illiteracy, and connect people to the services and information they need. Microsoft, for example, has already developed a prototype for a digital doctor that could help provide medical care in isolated rural communities. We want to see more ideas like that. And we’ll work with the winners of the competition and provide grants to help build their ideas to scale.
Sounds like the State Department is going to start an Internet Freedom fund.
Photo Credit: Flickr/ U.S. State Dept.