Analysis: Index’s experts on Hillary Clinton’s internet freedom speech
Leslie Harris, Ethan Zuckerman, Bill Thompson, Ian Brown and Guido Fawkes react to Clinton's call for greater internet freedom
21 Jan 10

In a major speech trailing American policies for internet freedom Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today urged US media companies to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments’ demands for censorship and surveillance. Clinton’s announcement following Google’s bold denunciation of Chinese censorship, and the company’s announcement that it will withdraw from China if it can’t reach an accommodation with the Chinese government.

But how do experts see the speech and will Clinton’s new Global Internet Freedom Task Force help those behind the great firewall?

Ethan Zuckerman Co-founder of Global Voices and research fellow at the Berkman Center

Today’s speech exposes Hillary Clinton as a dyed in the wool cyberutopian… which is a good thing. Her description of the internet as a “new nervous system for the planet” reflects aspiration as much as reality and points to a thorough embrace of the potentials for this technology, even in the face of dangerous uses of the tools. I was gratified to see her root the idea of “freedom to connect” not just in American history and tradition, but in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to make clear that she saw the responsibility to protect these rights falling on international institutions, like the UN Human Rights Council.

I’d been somewhat concerned that her statement might propose a new slate of internet rights, which might have sparked debate about whether the US was trying to impose its norms of speech on a global network – making it clear that internet freedom is rooted in the UDHR as is not a novel set of rights was an excellent move on her part. The policy part of the speech didn’t have many surprises. There’s been support in different branches of the US government for years for censorship circumvention technologies, and the State Department had already announced their interest in online diplomacy. What was interesting was the idea that taking a stand against censorship should become part of the “American brand”. That, combined with the prominent mention of the Global Network Initiative, looked like a hearty endorsement of Google’s recent decision to change its China business practices, and a challenge to other US companies to reconsider how they engage with nations that censor the Internet

Bill Thompson Journalist and technology analyst

It is hardly surprising that Hillary Clinton should call on other countries to bring down the barriers to the free flow of information online, nor that she should promise to discuss the issues “candidly” with China in the light of Google’s revelations about attacks on its infrastructure. The internet has long been seen as a way of exporting First Amendment guarantees of free speech to others, and Clinton’s liberal instincts remain strong.

We should not ignore the subtext, that an internet open for speech is also open for business and that US companies still build the majority of internet infrastructure and increasingly rely on it to trade. Nor should be disregard the hypocrisy of a senior politician in a governmentthat still routinely issues national security letters — in order to compel the secret disclosure of online information — calling on China to investigate the attacks on Google. But I take comfort from the fact that Clinton clearly understands the issues she is talking about, knows what the network is and what it can do, and is engaging with the pressing task of figuring out how to absorb it into her political practice.

leslie harrisLeslie Harris President/ CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology

We applaud Secretary Clinton for placing global internet freedom at the heart of 21st century diplomacy. This is a critical moment in the evolution of the Internet. Authoritarian regimes are remaking the Internet into a tool of political control; meanwhile, democratic countries are struggling to manage old social ills in the new digital world.The United States must take bold action to ensure that the global internet remains a powerful force for democracy and human rights, Secretary Clinton’s speech is an historic first step toward that end.

Ian Brown Senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute

Hillary Clinton’s support for online freedom is welcome. I hope it leads to a push for Internet companies to make that freedom meaningful. Microsoft, Yahoo!, Cisco and others can all do much more to protect the privacy and free speech of Internet users around the world. Search engines should join Google in refusing to provide censored results. Webmail providers should store messages and account information out of reach of repressive regimes. Infrastructure companies should refuse to sell “surveillance-ready” Internet routers to countries such as China and Iran.

At the same time, democracies should be careful of their own online freedoms. The US and UK both require Internet Service Providers to enable real-time interception on their networks. The UK government has strong-armed ISPs into blocking access to web pages on a secret list of alleged child pornography, including last year a Wikipedia entry. European ISPs are required to log information about their customers’ online activity — which in the UK is accessible without a warrant to hundreds of central and local government agencies. We should hardly be surprised when repressive governments follow our own example.

Guido Fawkes political blogger

Hillary’s speech is a restatement of Western values and the commitment to freedom of expression in the digital sphere just as we have for so long insisted on it for the written word. She was less solid on “hate speech”. Many regimes claim that those who oppose them are inciting violence or hate. Clinton could have clarified that only those advocating “hate acts” should face legal consequences.