Secretary Clinton: The Internet Has Become The World's Town Square

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the stage at George Washington University today to address ‘Internet Freedom’ and ways that the U.S. can ensure free internet access around the world. You can watch a live video of the speech on Facebook here. The announcement is timed with the measures taken by the Egyptian government to restrict internet access to citizens during the massive protests against the Mubarak regime. Much of the organization of the initial protests and rallies in Egypt took place over Twitter and Facebook over the past few weeks.

Clinton, who previously called on former Egyptian president Mubarak unblock social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, said that Egypt did not want the world to watch or witness what was taking place in the country. She drew similarities to the protests in Iran last year, where the internet and cellphone access were also shut down by the government.

Unlike, the situation in Iran, the story ended differently for Egypt. The internet is an accelerant of the way to start political change, says Clinton, and there is now a debate of whether the internet is a voice for surpression or liberation. But with 2 billion people online worldwide, Clinton says that the internet has become the world’s Town Square, where people are assembling to connect with each other. And that presents a challenge, says Clinton. “We need to have a serious conversation about what rules should exists and not exist and why.” She adds, “the freedom to assemble and associate is applicable to cyberspace.”

Clinton explains, “For the U.S. the choice is clear— we place ourselves on the side of openness. Internet freedom raises tensions like all freedoms do but the benefits outweigh the costs.”

Others have taken a different approach than the U.S. government, says Clinton. Some governments that arrest bloggers and limit their access to the internet may claim to be seeking security but they are taking the wrong path, she asserted.

The second challenge is protecting both transparency and confidentiality on the internet, she says. “In addition to being a public space, the internet is also a channel for private communication and there must be a way to protect confidential communications.” Clinton particularly highlights the importance of government communications, calling out Wikileaks, which she says began with an act of theft, similar to the act of smuggling papers from a briefcase.

She explains that many of cables released by Wikileaks relate to human rights issues around the world and it is dangerous work to publish these diplomatic cables. With this, Wikileaks exposed people to greater risks. And we did not ask or mandate that companies to shut down support to Wikileaks, she maintains.

Deleting writing, blocking content and arresting speakers only drives people with strong ideas to the fringes, where convictions deepen with challenges, Clinton explains. When it comes to online speech, the U.S. has chosen to urge are citizens to act with civility and recognize the power their speech has online.

Speaking specifically to the web, Clinton says that social networking sites are now becoming a collaborative space for assembly and political expression. Walls preventing this interaction are far easier to erect than maintain, she warns. “And these actions incur opportunity costs for closed freedom of expression. When countries curtail internet freedom, they place limits on economic future.”

Freedom of expression is part of what fuels innovation in a country, Clinton says. She highlights China, where internet censorship is high but economic growth is strong. But she warns that the restrictions will have economic costs for China in the future.

I urge countries to join us in the bet we have made, which is a bet that an open internet will lead to stronger countries, she concludes. Innovation thrives where ideas of all kinds are shared and explored. The U.S. will continue to promote and internet where people’s rights are protected, and has found strong partners and organizations to support this initiative worldwide.

Some have criticized the U.S. for not pouring money into a single technology, says Clinton, but there’s no technology available to prevent the surpression of internet access. “There’s no App for that so get working,” she said.

“This is just the opening act in terms of internet usage. We are playing for the long game. Progress on this front will be measured in years, not seconds. Let us remember that internet freedom is about ensuring that internet remains a space where all kinds of activities can take place. We want to keep the internet open for the protester using social media to organize protests, the lawyer who is blogging to expose corruption, for the small business manager in Kenya using her mobile phone to chart profits and more.”

Internet freedom is one of the grand challenges of our time, she concludes. “We enlist your help on behalf of this struggle for human rights, freedom and dignity.”