After the revolution in Egypt, it has become a truism that the Internet can foster dissent and political freedom. But in a thoughtful speech this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put that observation in perspective and committed the United States anew to promoting the online exchange of ideas in other countries.
Clinton’s speech was vague in places, and there is a tension between her emphasis on the importance of protecting the privacy of everything from business documents to journalists’ notes and efforts by the U.S. government to combat online security threats. Overall, however, it was an impressive attempt to advance an international conversation about how best to bring a commitment to democracy worldwide into an age in which the Internet is “town square, classroom, marketplace, coffeehouse and nightclub.”
Clinton called for an uncensored Internet, and she criticized countries — including Egypt during the events of the last few weeks — that suppress online communication. But rather than grounding her case for an uncensored Internet only in traditional notions of free expression, Clinton also argued that Web freedom would encourage economic growth. “Freedom of thought and the level playing field made possible by the rule of law are part of what fuels innovation economies,” she said.
In case authoritarian regimes are unpersuaded, Clinton noted that the United States has launched Twitter feeds in Arabic and Farsi and “continues to help people in oppressive Internet environments get around filters, stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online.” (Those efforts are worthy, but the Twitter feeds are likely to be viewed in many countries as an exercise in propaganda rather than an attempt to promote Internet freedom.)
In her address, Clinton celebrated the idea of confidentiality, saying it was necessary for the conduct of business and journalism as well as diplomatic communications. But she made it clear that in some instances confidentiality must yield to other values. Indeed, the administration in which she serves has placed law enforcement above protecting the privacy of some online communications.
That contradiction makes it easy for other nations to accuse the United States of hypocrisy. But it doesn’t undermine Clinton’s primary point that the Internet shouldn’t be censored. It’s an important message. Clinton said the costs of blocking the Internet are “unsustainable in the long run.” But in the short run, even after the revolution in Egypt, plenty of autocrats will turn the “off” switch.