Clinton Assails Censorship, Unveils New U.S. Internet Freedom Policy

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned Web censorship and cyber-attacks Thursday as she outlined the Obama administration's new "Internet freedom" policy. Her words came amidst a growing dispute between Google (GOOG) and China over cyber-security and online censorship.In a closely-watched address at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Thursday, Clinton sought to put repressive regimes on notice that the U.S. intends to take a new "proactive" stance aimed at opening closed global networks, and for the first time said that the U.S. intends to actively help people in other countries evade Web censorship.

"States, terrorists and those who would act as their proxies must know that the United States will protect the security of our networks," Clinton declared, during what was billed as major policy speech. "Countries and individuals that engage in cyber-attacks must face consequences and international condemnation."

"As I speak here today," Clinton said, "Government censors somewhere are working furiously to scrub my words from history." She assailed countries that have erected barriers to information, "expunged words, names and places" from the Internet, and violated the privacy of people engaged in non-violent speech.

"These actions contravene the Universal Declaration of human rights which says people have the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers," Clinton said, adding that Web censorship threatens to erect a "new information curtain."

"On-Ramp For Modernity"

"The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet," Clinton said. "A connection to global information networks is like an on-ramp for modernity. We should use them to lift people out of poverty and give them freedom from want," she said.

Clinton said that while new technologies and the Internet have delivered amazing advances in communication and productivity, they are not "unmitigated blessings," and are indeed "being used to undermine human progress and political rights." She said that in the last year "we've seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information."

"On their own new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for human freedom and progress," Clinton said. "But the U.S. does. We need to synchronize our technological progress with our principles."

"As the birthplace of so many of these technologies, including the Internet," the U.S. Secretary of State added, "we have a responsibility to see them used for good."

Clinton's stance is likely to hearten human rights activists and internet freedom advocates who have long called for the U.S. government and American companies to take a more aggressive stance toward regimes that censor the internet and repress their people.

"It's amazing to hear the secretary say we're taking a pro-freedom bias," on Web censorship, Clay Shirky, an Internet expert, said during a panel discussion after the speech. "We''re no longer just watching events unfold, we're actually going to take a policy bias about this."

Moral and Economic Imperatives

Clinton's speech comes just over a week after U.S. search titan Google rocked the tech world by declaring it would no longer censor its Chinese-language search engine in the wake of a massive cyber-attack on its network from China. While continuing the Obama's administration policy of treading lightly on the situation, Clinton made it clear that the U.S. supports Google and wants answers from China.

"We look to the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough review of the cyber-attacks that led to Google's announcement," Clinton said. She urged American media and internet companies to follow Google's lead. "American companies need to take a proactive role in challenging censorship. They need to consider what's right, not simply what makes a quick profit."

Clinton argued that while the fight against Web censorship is a certain moral imperative, it is also an economic imperative. "For companies, this is about more than about claiming the moral high ground, it's about the trust between firms and their customers," she said. "Those companies that lose the confidence of their customers will eventually lose customers."

Thus, Clinton argued, it is in American companies' economic interest to stand up to China -- and she urged them to do so. "Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company anywhere," Clinton declared. "American companies should take a principled stand."

Internet Freedom, At Home And Abroad

Free speech advocates praised Clinton's speech. "Secretary Clinton is to be commended for raising Internet Freedom to the level as a major element of our foreign policy," Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, a D.C. advocacy group, said in a statement. "Her speech this morning served to highlight the incredible benefits that come from a free, interconnected network."

The Open internet Coalition, which supports internet freedom, also issued a statement of support. "The effort by foreign governments to restrict access to the Internet threatens individual rights and the global movement towards freedom and democracy," the group said. "The Secretary has taken an important step in shining the spotlight on these egregious practices and promoting the freedom to connect."

Both groups said steps should be taken to preserve a free and open internet in the United States, as well. "We must also protect the rights of individual free expression on the Internet at home as well as abroad because neither government nor network provider should be able to interfere with this freedom," the Open internet Coalition said. "The current effort at the FCC to enact common-sense rules to ensure the Internet remains a platform for free expression at home is critical to making sure that the freedom of choice for our own citizens is protected and we continue to serve as an example for Internet freedom to the entire world."
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