Friday, January 22, 2010

The Virtual Ideological Battle Begins

Yesterday US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech at The Newseum om Washington DC, talking about Internet freedom. This was the US government's first official response to the Google situation, though it was not directly mentioned by name.

Here are some excerpts of what she said:

Now, in many respects, information has never been so free. There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. And even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.

During his visit to China in November, for example, President Obama held a town hall meeting with an online component to highlight the importance of the internet. In response to a question that was sent in over the internet, he defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship. The United States belief in that ground truth is what brings me here today.

Because amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns, or nuclear power can either energize a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill. The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable al-Qaida to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent. And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.

In the last year, we've seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet. In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared. And last Friday in Egypt, 30 bloggers and activists were detained. One member of this group, Bassem Samir, who is thankfully no longer in prison, is with us today. So while it is clear that the spread of these technologies is transforming our world, it is still unclear how that transformation will affect the human rights and the human welfare of the world's population.

On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world's information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. Now, this challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic. The words of the First Amendment to our Constitution are carved in 50 tons of Tennessee marble on the front of this building. And every generation of Americans has worked to protect the values etched in that stone.

Then she goes on to suggest some authoritarian regimes use controls on the Internet:

Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world's networks. They've expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world. And beyond this partition, viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day.

As in the dictatorships of the past, governments are targeting independent thinkers who use these tools. In the demonstrations that followed Iran's presidential elections, grainy cell phone footage of a young woman's bloody murder provided a digital indictment of the government's brutality. We've seen reports that when Iranians living overseas posted online criticism of their nation's leaders, their family members in Iran were singled out for retribution. And despite an intense campaign of government intimidation, brave citizen journalists in Iran continue using technology to show the world and their fellow citizens what is happening inside their country. In speaking out on behalf of their own human rights, the Iranian people have inspired the world. And their courage is redefining how technology is used to spread truth and expose injustice.

Although she does concede there are those who use the Internet for evil purposes, from terrorism to sexual predators, the majority use it to gain more knowledge, for greater transparency and for greater global communication.

And based on this aspect she believes it is crucial for the US to protect the right to free Internet access around the world. Clinton announced that the government will be working with industry, academia, and non-governmental organizations to use technology to aid in its diplomatic efforts. "By relying on mobile phones, mapping applications, and other new tools, we can empower citizens and leverage our traditional diplomacy. We can address deficiencies in the current market for innovation," she said.

While her statements were broad, she delivered them in a clear firm voice that showed the Obama administration's strong stand on protecting Internet freedom.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is trying to play down the Google issue as a political one and trying to spin is as a purely economic decision.

A Chinese expert claims her speech is just an empty slogan.

"In the US, a country that boasts its Internet freedom, governmental supervision virtually infiltrates across the nation, and its influence further extends to worldwide servers," said Wang Yizhou, deputy chief of the Institute of World Politics and Economy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "The information-searching via Google and the online chatting through Windows Live Messenger are all under stringent surveillance, and the relevant agencies are tasked with compiling backups."

Yu Wanli, an expert on international studies at Peking University agreed. "Clinton's so-called Internet freedom is a freedom that is dominated by the US. Ten of the 13 root name servers in the world are located in the US. They are the top hierarchy of the Internet, which means by controlling them, the US can define the freedom of the Internet. How can Clinton guarantee you a freedom if her country has the power to unplug you?"

What Wang says about the US could easily be substituted with China, while Yu misses the point about the Internet. While most of the servers may be housed in the US, the government is not going to pull the plug on the Internet anytime soon and in fact will do everything to protect free access.

Chinese state media is trying hard to twist Clinton's words, but most young savvy Internet users know these two experts' arguments are weak and trying to play up the nationalistic card.

But really, once you take something away from people, they want it back, and not giving them back access to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter makes them annoyed and embarrassed about their government's insecurity in not allowing them to access these kinds of sites.

It's not about patriotism, it's about access to what they believe is rightfully theirs.

1 comment:

ks said...

there is a delicate balance between too much press freedom and too much control. in order to counteract terrorism sometimes it is necessary to go to extreme measures.