“As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion.”
-Adjudication on Motions for Preliminary Injunction, American Civil Liberties Union et al. V. Janet Reno (No. 96-963) and American Library Association et al. V. United States Dept. of Justice (No. 96-1458)
The Internet provides us with an amazing real-time news tool, where we can learn exactly what is happening, when it's happening, and where it's happening. In an analogy between the Cold War and today, Clinton compared web 2.0 tools like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to the “Samizdat” of the modern age, and said that Internet censorship is the “new information curtain descending across much of the world.”
Over the past decade there have been many shifting trends in Internet freedom and censorship. Because it is still such a young and unique form of communication, there is little precedent for how it should be governed or regulated. Most countries are slowly changing that, but they're not all heading in the same direction. Italy, which most people would consider a free and modern EU country, convicted three Google executives over a Google video titled “Bullying: Disabled Boy Abused in School.” The clip, uploaded in 2006, showed four Italian youths teasing an autistic classmate and throwing tissues at him.
Clinton approached the subject of Internet freedom as something that should be a basic human right. Three of the tenets addressed in her speech were that all people should have free access to the Internet, freedom of speech and freedom of worship. Clinton said censorship of the Internet by governments like China, Tunisia and Uzbekistan were a way to “crush dissent and deny human rights.”
Clinton's speech also mentioned reinvigorating the Global Internet Freedom Task Force (GIFT) in order to help address the threat of Internet freedom not only in repressive regimes but also throughout the world. The Internet is an immeasurably potent force, with the ability to transform our world via unlimited resources. The problem with fighting for the freedom of information is that often times we still wish to control what information we deem appropriate.
It's a double-edged sword. As a country, how can we not see the contradiction in saying we are against oppressive regimes who limit the freedom of speech on the Internet and yet at the same time form a government agency intended to monitor and control the “free flow of information and ideas.”
Clinton addressed this problem briefly in her speech by saying, “Now, all societies recognize that free expression has its limits. We do not tolerate those who incite others to violence. ... And hate speech that targets individuals on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation is reprehensible. ... And we must also grapple with the issue of anonymous speech.”
It is honorable for us to want to protect Internet freedom as a basic human right, but what happens when the information being presented disagrees with our own nation's moral values? By relying on the Department of State's multidisciplinary expertise in international communications policy, human rights, democratization and social responsibility, we give them a large degree of power that could invite misuse in later years.
Our politicians attack other countries for their government surveillance and monitoring systems in place at internet service providers and main internet gateways, yet few American citizens realize that our government has similar systems in place. In fact, all countries have a national gateway they can open or close to control Internet access to and from the given country. In 1998, the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand joined together to form a global surveillance system that encapsulates all major traffic points on the Internet. The system, known as ECHELON, is rarely discussed and difficult to obtain information on. Although this sophisticated system was put to place to protect us against terrorist and military activities, it failed to detect the plans for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There is evidence, however, that it “monitors political organizations, including human rights groups such as Amnesty International.” (Gift of Fire, p. 108, Sara Baase, Practice Hall, 2003)
The BBC invited comments from web users regarding Clinton's speech and the debate over Internet freedom on their website. Xu Xiaoxaio, from Guangzhou, emailed saying, "I don't think there is complete freedom of access to the internet even in [the] US. Does America allow people to publish propaganda for terror attacks against them? So why should China lift its control on content which harms the national safety? Why should we listen to lectures from the West saying we should do what they expect? They will not take the moral high ground any more. China should shape up its own culture. We want our own voice to be heard, not just that of the US and the West.”
Freedom, similar to privacy, requires a difficult balancing act. We want to encourage access to information and the exchange of ideas but also need to maintain the security of information networks. Accomplishing both, the protection of systems and the empowering of citizens, requires new forms of diplomacy. As Clinton said in her speech, “No matter where you live, people want to believe that what they put into the internet is not going to be used against them. … We need to work toward a world in which access to networks and information brings people closer together and expands the definition of the global community. Given the magnitude of the challenges we’re facing, we need people around the world to pool their knowledge and creativity to help rebuild the global economy, to protect our environment, to defeat violent extremism, and build a future in which every human being can live up to and realize his or her God-given potential.”