Michael Posner, the US assistant Secretary of State in charge of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor bluntly called Internet freedom one of the “game-changing human rights issues of our time” Wednesday at a symposium in Washington on the promise and limitations of new technology to spread democracy.
That sentiment will surely earn applause from free speech advocates who’ve watched unfold in the Middle East this year the dual nature of the Internet to facilitate both free expression and sophisticated repression of it. Exactly what the US government should be doing to ensure Internet freedom, however, is a messier question — particularly given that visible State Department support for foreign dissidents can often do more harm than good, and given that US involvement can just as easily play to the hands of the repressive governments dissidents seek to overthrow.
Posner offered Wednesday this blueprint for what he believes the proper role of the U.S. should be:
“We start from the premise that change occurs most effectively within a society. We can’t force it from the outside, but we can be helpful in amplifying the voice of domestic activists trying to raise these issues, we can provide some measure of protection to them and help create an international environment where these issues are discussed in a more intelligent way. But we’re very mindful of the importance of reinforcing domestic voices. This is not about us, it’s about them, and it’s about governments refusing to let their people stand up and speak for what they want.”
He also spoke directly with advice to authoritarian leaders:
“Don’t shoot the instant messanger. Instead address the underlying grievances: corruption, abuse of power, lack of political and economic opportunity, and the daily affronts to dignity by indifferent authorities.”
Authoritarian governments who’ve blamed the Internet — and US backing for it — for local unrest have fundamentally misunderstood their problems, Posner suggests.
“Let’s be honest. Governments that respect the rights of their citizens have no reason to fear a free internet. The Internet didn’t topple the regimes of Tunisia and Egypt. People did.”