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Clinton Renews Call For Internet Freedom

February 16, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged on Tuesday that the United States would boost support for global Internet freedom, as citizens increasingly turn to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to organize demonstrations throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

In her second major speech in the past year on the subject of Internet restrictions, Clinton said the recent demonstrations show how technology can promote “political, social, and economic change” or “slow or extinguish that change.”

The remarks were in reference to efforts by the governments of Egypt, Syria, Iran and elsewhere to restrict access to the Internet and mobile networks.

Clinton said such actions would cause governments to pay a high economic price and would risk further civil unrest.

Speaking at George Washington University, Clinton cited nations such as Cuba, China, Iran, Myanmar, Syria and Vietnam as countries that restrict Internet access, impose censorship or arrest Internet bloggers who are critical of their governments.

The U.S. will continue to assist people in “oppressive Internet environments,” with censorship aversion technology, she said.

However, “there is no silver bullet in the struggle against Internet repression.”

“There’s no ‘app’ for that,” she said.

The U.S. supports the “freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online,” Clinton said while calling on other nations to do the same.

“This is a critical moment,” she said.

“The choices we make today will determine what the Internet looks like in the future.”

The Internet is “the public space of the 21st century — the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house, and nightclub,” she said, adding that protests in Egypt and Iran facilitated by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube indicated “the power of connection technologies as an accelerant of political, social, and economic change.”

“Consider what happened in Tunisia, where online economic activity was an important part of the country’s ties with Europe, while online censorship was on par with China and Iran,” she said.

“The effort to divide the economic Internet from the ‘everything else’ Internet in Tunisia could not be sustained. People, especially young people, found ways to use connection technologies to organize and share grievances.”

“This helped fuel a movement that led to revolutionary change.”

“Those who clamp down on Internet freedom may be able to hold back the full expression of their people’s yearnings for a while, but not forever,” she said.

Efforts to restrict Internet access carry “a variety of costs — moral, political, and economic.”

“Countries may be able to absorb these costs for a time, but we believe they’re unsustainable in the long run,” she said.

“When countries curtail Internet freedom, they place limits on their economic future.”

China, she said, has been cited as a place where “where Internet censorship is high and economic growth is strong.”

However, these restrictions “will have long-term costs that threaten one day to become a noose that restrains growth and development.”

“We believe that governments who have erected barriers to Internet freedom… will eventually find themselves boxed in,” she said.

“They’ll face a dictator’s dilemma, and have to choose between letting the walls fall or paying the price to keep them standing.”

During the speech, Clinton also announced plans to launch Twitter feeds in Chinese, Russian and Hindi, days after unveiling Twitter feeds in Arabic and Farsi.

Clinton also addressed the subject of Wikileaks, the whistleblower Web site that leaked thousands of classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents.

Calling the leaks an act of theft, Clinton said U.S. criticism of the website’s actions did not contradict Washington’s pledge to an open Internet.

“Fundamentally, the Wikileaks incident began with an act of theft,” she said.

“Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase.”

Governments require confidentiality to effectively deal with sensitive issues, she added.

“Our diplomats closely collaborate with activists, journalists, and citizens to challenge the misdeeds of oppressive governments.”

“It’s dangerous work. By publishing the diplomatic cables, Wikileaks exposed people to even greater risk.”

Clinton insisted that the U.S. government played no role in the decision by U.S. companies such as Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and Amazon to shutdown services to Wikileaks.

“Any business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own policies regarding Wikileaks was not at the direction or the suggestion of the Obama administration,” she said.

“There were reports in the days following the leak that the U.S. government intervened to coerce private companies to deny service to Wikileaks.”

“This is not the case,” she said.

“Some politicians and pundits publicly called for companies to dissociate from Wikileaks, while others criticized them for doing so,” she added.

“Public officials are part of our country’s public debates, but there is a line between expressing views and coercing conduct,” Mrs. Clinton said, adding that Internet freedom was not at the center of the Wikileaks case.

“Wikileaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom,” she said.

Clinton’s speech coincided with a hearing in a U.S. court in Virginia today over the government’s attempt to obtain information about the Twitter accounts of people associated with Wikileaks.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange called the move an “outrageous attack by the Obama administration on the privacy and free speech rights of Twitter’s customers — many of them American citizens.”

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