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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Internet Freedom, January 21, 2010
The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet. When something happens in Haiti or Hunan, the rest of us learn about it in real time – from real people. And we can respond in real time as well….
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 over the Net, 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 incited 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.
Franklin Roosevelt built on these ideas when he delivered his Four Freedoms speech in 1941. Now, at the time, Americans faced a cavalcade of crises and a crisis of confidence. But the vision of a world in which all people enjoyed freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear transcended the troubles of his day. And years later, one of my heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, worked to have these principles adopted as a cornerstone of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They have provided a lodestar to every succeeding generation, guiding us, galvanizing us, and enabling us to move forward in the face of uncertainty.
So as technology hurtles forward, we must think back to that legacy. We need to synchronize our technological progress with our principles. In accepting the Nobel Prize, President Obama spoke about the need to build a world in which peace rests on the inherent rights and dignities of every individual. And in my speech on human rights at Georgetown a few days later, I talked about how we must find ways to make human rights a reality. Today, we find an urgent need to protect these freedoms on the digital frontiers of the 21st century.
There are many other networks in the world. Some aid in the movement of people or resources, and some facilitate exchanges between individuals with the same work or interests. But the internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, emails, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship.
As I speak to you today, government censors somewhere are working furiously to erase my words from the records of history. But history itself has already condemned these tactics. Two months ago, I was in Germany to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The leaders gathered at that ceremony paid tribute to the courageous men and women on the far side of that barrier who made the case against oppression by circulating small pamphlets called samizdat. Now, these leaflets questioned the claims and intentions of dictatorships in the Eastern Bloc and many people paid dearly for distributing them. But their words helped pierce the concrete and concertina wire of the Iron Curtain.
The Berlin Wall symbolized a world divided and it defined an entire era. Today, remnants of that wall sit inside this museum where they belong, and the new iconic infrastructure of our age is the internet. Instead of division, it stands for connection. But even as networks spread to nations around the globe, virtual walls are cropping up in place of visible walls.
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.
Now, all societies recognize that free expression has its limits. We do not tolerate those who incite others to violence, such as the agents of al-Qaida who are, at this moment, using the internet to promote the mass murder of innocent people across the world. And hate speech that targets individuals on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation is reprehensible. It is an unfortunate fact that these issues are both growing challenges that the international community must confront together. And we must also grapple with the issue of anonymous speech. Those who use the internet to recruit terrorists or distribute stolen intellectual property cannot divorce their online actions from their real world identities. But these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes….
Some nations…have co-opted the internet as a tool to target and silence people of faith. Last year, for example, in Saudi Arabia, a man spent months in prison for blogging about Christianity. And a Harvard study found that the Saudi Government blocked many web pages about Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and even Islam. Countries including Vietnam and China employed similar tactics to restrict access to religious information….
We have taken steps as a government, and as a Department, to find diplomatic solutions to strengthen global cyber security. We have a lot of people in the State Department working on this. They’ve joined together, and we created two years ago an office to coordinate foreign policy in cyberspace. We’ve worked to address this challenge at the UN and in other multilateral forums and to put cyber security on the world’s agenda. And President Obama has just appointed a new national cyberspace policy coordinator who will help us work even more closely to ensure that everyone’s networks stay free, secure, and reliable.
States, terrorists, and those who would act as their proxies must know that the United States will protect our networks. Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government, and our civil society. Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation. In an internet-connected world, an attack on one nation’s networks can be an attack on all. [Ed. Emphasis mine…the key to the speech.] And by reinforcing that message, we can create norms of behavior among states and encourage respect for the global networked commons….
Increasingly, U.S. companies are making the issue of internet and information freedom a greater consideration in their business decisions. I hope that their competitors and foreign governments will pay close attention to this trend. The most recent situation involving Google has attracted a great deal of interest. And we look to the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough review of the cyber intrusions that led Google to make its announcement. And we also look for that investigation and its results to be transparent.
The internet has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it is fabulous. There are so many people in China now online. But countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century. Now, the United States and China have different views on this issue, and we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently in the context of our positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship.
Now, ultimately, this issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors.
Information freedom supports the peace and security that provides a foundation for global progress. Historically, asymmetrical access to information is one of the leading causes of interstate conflict. When we face serious disputes or dangerous incidents, it’s critical that people on both sides of the problem have access to the same set of facts and opinions.
As it stands, Americans can consider information presented by foreign governments. We do not block your attempts to communicate with the people in the United States. But citizens in societies that practice censorship lack exposure to outside views. In North Korea, for example, the government has tried to completely isolate its citizens from outside opinions. This lopsided access to information increases both the likelihood of conflict and the probability that small disagreements could escalate. So I hope that responsible governments with an interest in global stability will work with us to address such imbalances.