It seems to me that Clinton’s speech had a number of aims:
1. Re-iterate the State Department’s commitment to the free and open Internet as a core component of US foreign policy.
2. Against the backdrop of the recent dramatic events in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, this was an opportunity to respond to critics (unnamed in the speech) who have questioned whether the Internet is necessarily a force for good and who have criticised the US government’s support for internet freedom as naive or even counterproductive.
3. To assert that the US State Department remains a legitimate advocate of internet freedom despite its experience with and reaction to Wikileaks.
4. To clarify that by championing “internet freedom” last year she never intended to advocate a free-for-all or lack of rules; and thereby to emphasise that along with freedom comes responsibility – not only the responsibility of governments to uphold rights, but the responsibility of companies to act in the public interest and the responsibility of citizens not to abuse freedoms in ways that do harm to others.
5. To defend the State Department’s Internet freedom funding strategy, which includes a broad spectrum of projects aiming to assist people around the world who face barriers to online free expression, and to address criticism by some in Washington who believe the State Department should focus its funding exclusively on “circumvention tools” which help Internet users access blocked websites.
I applaud the secretary’s strong commitment to the idea that internet and telecommunications companies must be uphold core and universal rights of free expression and privacy. It was also very important that Clinton reiterated US support for multi-stakeholder internet governance.
I also agree that “there is no silver bullet” or “app” for internet freedom. There is no one set of tools that will magically and easily free people living in authoritarian societies from oppression. She was right to emphasise that people cause revolutions, not technology – though smart use of technology certainly helps.
It is indeed a good thing that the US State Department continues to champion the free and open, globally interconnected Internet as a core component of US foreign policy. I am also not surprised, however, that US government’s global internet freedom policy is dogged and weakened by the same types of contradictions that have dogged and weakened US credibility on human rights and democracy promotion for the past half-century.
While the State Department advocates internet freedom other parts of the US government are pursuing aims that run directly counter to the idea of a free and open Internet where dissent and unpopular speech can be protected.
I found the section of her speech dedicated to Wikileaks to be weak and logically inconsistent. She conflated the actions of the alleged leaker who stole classified documents (Bradley Manning) with the actions of the publisher (Wikileaks the organisation). In an ideal world I wish that the US Secretary of State would declare to the world that while she and her colleagues believe that Wikileaks was irresponsible, the United States has a First Amendment protecting free speech.
It is a country based on rule of law and due process which must be respected without fail in order for our democracy to remain strong. I wish that she could have stated that even the most difficult and troubling cases must be handled with full respect for the fundamental principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
Unfortunately, the statement she did make will give comfort to governments everywhere that want to treat whistleblowers, and organisations that publish information obtained from whistleblowers, as criminals from the get-go before a case is even made or a judgment is delivered.
Rebecca MacKinnon is co-founder Global Voices Online and Bernard Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation