Monroe Price: Clinton's internet freedom speeches compared

Secretary Clinton’s George Washington University speech can best be understood by comparing it to her internet freedom speech given, with great flourish, a little more than one year earlier.

The 2010 speech was given, primarily, with an eye on China.  This speech was set in the wake of Tunisia and Egypt. The 2011 speech sought – nobly and romantically — to emphasize the human aspects — not the mere technological ones — of great public actions that could alter history.

This was a speech nominally about the internet, but Secretary Clinton again and again talked about the power of people massing and demonstrating, not because of technology but merely aided by it.

Brave individuals “stood and marched and chanted and the authorities tracked and blocked and arrested them. The internet did not do any of these things; people did.”

There was a modesty to the speech that refined the claims of its predecessor.  The 2010 speech was on internet freedom (see my blog about it in the Huffington Post;  the 2011 speech was on “Internet Rights and Wrongs:  Choices and Challenges in  Networked World.”)

Things were and should be stated in a more complicated way. The 2010 talk spoke about “one internet”, a challenge to notions of state sovereignty.

This trope, a specific challenge to China, was less marked in the 2011 presentation.  The 2011 speech marked the United States on the “side of openness” in fighting for an Internet that would aid in fulfilling human rights, a more precise shaping of the balances and contradictions at stake, than was present a year earlier.

This speech – more rounded, more circumspect, is more precise and still prescriptive and committed.

At the end, the Secretary moves to the practical and instrumental. “We realize that in order to be meaningful, online freedoms must carry over into real world activism.”

A key paragraph:

While the rights we seek to protect and support are clear, the various ways that these rights are violated are increasingly complex.  I know some have criticized us for not pouring funding into a single technology. But we believe there is not a silver bullet in the struggle against internet repression.  There is no app for that. Start working those of you out there.  And accordingly, we are taking a comprehensive and innovative approach, one that matches our diplomacy with technology, secure distribution networks for tools, and direct support for those on the front lines.

Here, implicit is defining the proper role of the US in furthering an open internet, in furthering the “right to connect” as Secretary Clinton tries to define it.  State seems to be trying to find this spot — what combination of strenuous activities advances internet freedom.

Implicit is that some interventions can be counterproductive.  Of course, it’s an appealing idea to say that opening up the sluices of information will swiftly bring down dictators, and that’s a plausible and welcome reading of events.  But that’s the consequence of a system of approaches, not the pulling of an off/on switch.

Involved are myriad other activities, “supporting multiple tools”, as Clinton put it, connecting NGOs and advocates with technology and training, playing a role as “venture capitalist” for new technologies of freedom.

What mix is the right one, what judgments help produce the great human acts of bravery and the shift to democratic realisation. That remains subject to the hard realities of day to day executive judgment.

Professor Monroe Price is the director of the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania