Internet Freedom 1.1: A Policy Develops

Yesterday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech (above) on “Internet Rights And Wrongs: Choices & Challenges In A Networked World,” which can be seen as a follow-up on the Internet freedom agenda. Though garnering little attention (the official State Department version had 21 views on YouTube when I watched it) the speech is important as a barometer for how the State Department is thinking about digital activism and digital repression a year after her first speech on Internet freedom in January of 2010:

This new address is clearly an “ideas speech” meant to win the support of Internet intellectuals, wooing them with terms like “dictator’s dilemma,” “Global Network Initiative,” “digital activists,” and discussion of the cyber-optimist/cyber-pessimist debate. Though there are few new ideas in this speech, there is some elegant enunciation of the key issues in the field and evidence that State’s understanding of Internet freedom is becoming more sophisticated. Here are some of the main points:

  • Uses a rights approach, proclaiming that “together, the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online comprise what I’ve called the freedom to connect. The United States supports this freedom for people everywhere, and we have called on other nations to do the same.”
  • Suggests the need for principles to govern the Internet as a public space in terms of finding a balance between competing interests: liberty vs. security, transparency vs. confidentiality, free expression vs. fostering tolerance and civility. In each case she notes the importance of both sides, in true diplomatic fashion.
  • Advances the dictator’s dilemma argument that “when countries curtail internet freedom, they place limits on their economic future.”
  • Restates US commitment to open internet: “I urge countries everywhere instead to join us in the bet we have made, a bet that an open internet will lead to stronger, more prosperous countries.”
  • Backs off previous support for “a single technology,” likely a reference to past financial support for the development and dissemination of circumvention tools, which critics viewed as a simplistic response to a complicated problem, saying “I know some have criticized us for not pouring funding into a single technology, but we believe there is no silver bullet in the struggle against internet repression. There’s no app for that.”
  • Announces a significant increase in funding “to support a burgeoning group of technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against internet repression” with $25 million in additional funding to be awarded in 2011, up from $20 million in over the past three years. The funding strategy is a “venture capital-style approach, supporting a portfolio of technologies, tools, and training.”

Though the State Department is not leading the intellectual agenda in this field, they are at least showing that they are a part of it and that they are savvy enough to know what is going on (multiple global anecdotes are shared) and know what they most important ideas and concerns are.

However, this speech does not mark a significant break with the ideas of the first: this is Internet freedom 1.1 not 2.0. The speech marks the development of an existing policy, not its reformulation. There is still the conviction that technology is value-neutral, to be used for good or ill, the focus on tools, the US commitment to an open global Internet. The changes are more subtle: from a “four freedoms” framework to a rights approach, a sophisticated enunciation of the competing interests called into play when aiming for an open Internet, name-checking key ideas like the dictator’s dilemma. The thinking of the State Department is developing and developing in a positive way.

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