Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Does Secretary Clinton Have a Double Standard on Internet Freedom?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday highlighted new U.S. Internet freedom policy that is designed to help democracy movements gain access to open networks and speak out against authoritarian regimes.

According to Clinton, the program will provide $25 million in new grants to support "technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against Internet repression."

It will help fund efforts like circumvention and encryption services, which enable users to evade Internet blockades, and technology to wipe sensitive data from cell phones when activists are detained by security forces.

Protecting Our Freedom to Connect

In a speech seen as a follow-up to her 2010 address on the issue, Clinton reasserted the administration's belief in our universal "freedom to connect," something the Secretary of State and the White House see as a natural extension of our longstanding rights to free speech, assembly and association.

Her remarks carried a heightened sense of urgency in light of events still unfolding across the Middle East.

Clinton said the Internet was both an "accelerant of political and social change" and a "force for repression." She called for a global commitment to Internet freedom. "The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace," she said.

Clinton urged countries everywhere to bet that "an open Internet will lead to stronger, more prosperous countries... that open societies give rise to lasting progress."

But her call for unfettered and uncensored access to the Internet around the globe needs to resonate here at home as well.

No Double Standard at Home

The Obama administration's recent failure to stand up for a strong Net Neutrality rules, its slow-footed response to the export of invasive snooping technologies, and apparent reluctance to abandon the idea of an Internet "kill switch" all suggest a double standard in what the administration seeks for foreign governments and what it will accept in the United States.

(Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard's Berkman Center critiques other aspects of Clinton's speech)

At the end of 2010, Obama's FCC distanced itself from the president's prior commitment "to take a back seat to no one" in his support for Net Neutrality. Instead of ensuring openness on wireless Internet devices like the iPhone and Droid, the FCC exempted the mobile Internet from vital openness protections.

This move enshrines Verizon and AT&T as gatekeepers to the expanding world of the mobile Web. And both have a checkered past when it comes to protecting our right to connect.

In 2007, Verizon blocked text messages sent by Naral Pro-Choice America to its members. The move put Verizon in the same league as its cohorts at AT&T, which in August that same year censored the live Webcast of a Pearl Jam performance that included criticism of then President George W. Bush.

Comcast, the nation's largest cable Internet provider was caught blocking users' ability to connect to one another and trade files using popular BitTorrent software.

And the issues go beyond the administration's unwillingness to face down corporations that block our connections. Just hours before Secretary Clinton's speech, Justice Department lawyers urged a federal magistrate in Alexandria, Virginia, to uphold a court order requiring Twitter to turn over confidential information about the use of its services by three WikiLeaks supporters.

It's hard to claim the moral high road and presume to lecture other countries on the importance of online freedom when your own promise to defend it at home takes a backseat to corporate meddling and government interference.

And it's even harder to stomach such rhetoric when U.S. companies are exporting deep-packet inspection technology that's used to spy on democracy activists, or the administration seems intent on reserving the power to shut down our communications networks.

While Clinton's call for uninterrupted access to the Internet -- and its now famous offspring Facebook, Twitter and Youtube -- is laudable, we need to be consistent and do better in our policies both at home and abroad.

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