Commentary Magazine


Internet Freedom, Back Again

Alana Goodman notes that Hillary Clinton has made a tough speech on Internet freedom. When I read Alana’s post, I thought it was news from last year. Quoth the Washington Post on January 22, 2010:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Thursday for a global Internet free of censorship. … In a sweeping “Internet freedom” speech, Clinton also called for nations to band together to punish cyber attacks meant to quiet citizens and disrupt businesses abroad. … Clinton said the United States would push to preserve the ability of anyone to connect and freely transfer information over the Web. While short on details for how that goal would be achieved, her speech sends a signal that technology plays an important role in U.S. diplomacy.

So, a year on, how’s that working out? Well, Radio Netherlands has just published a summary of a leaked Senate report criticizing State Department efforts to counter Internet censorship over the past year. The report finds “scant follow-up” from the administration over the past 12 months, notes that most of the money allocated by Congress has not been spent, blames State for becoming the client of the governments with which it interacts regularly, condemns its “inept handling” of the one major technology it did deploy — software that rapidly proved to be so insecure as to pose a danger to the dissidents it sought to empower — and recommends that all funding be shifted to the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

The leaked report is good news because it shows that the Senate is on the case. But its findings are common knowledge to anyone who has followed this issue: see, for instance, Jackson Diehl’s op-ed from last October, which makes the additional and particularly valuable point that State has not done much more than “avoid offending the Chinese government.”

The administration’s approach was initially to argue that Internet freedom required, as Diehl put it, “heading off governments’ moves to regulate the Internet.” This was a prelude to blowing American money on meaningless seminars on Internet freedom with third-tier Chinese bureaucrats. Secretary Clinton’s latest call for “global standards” for Internet use, though heavier on regulation, is really just more of the same: while there’s no way that China (or Iran) is going to accept such standards, talking about them is a great way to waste time, get rid of the money Congress has allocated, and avoid coming to grips with the issue.

It’s too soon to accept that the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were simply caused by Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet. Technology enthusiasts naturally say such things, but theirs is the faith of the true believer. Still, the fact that these regimes tried to control the Net, and clamped down even harder when the streets started to stir, is strong evidence that they viewed online freedom as their enemy. America — with Congress playing a constructive and serious part — was set to play a leading role in advancing that freedom. That would have been the right thing to do — it is still the right thing to do — even if it meant confronting the Chinese.

Instead, we did nothing, and we are still doing nothing. That is an embarrassment — almost as embarrassing as Secretary Clinton’s trotting out a supposedly revolutionary policy after a year of doing nothing about it