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Hillary Clinton and internet freedom (civilized)

Hillary Clinton recent speech on Internet freedom highlights the contradictions in American diplomacy, sandwiched between Wikileaks and Facebook. And it may already be obsolete.

by Olivier Tesquet On February 18, 2011

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À propos de l'auteur

Jeune journaliste issu de l'école géopolitique, j'ai quelques marottes, comme les libertés numériques, le LOL et les enquêtes à tiroirs. Embarqué dans la Soucoupe depuis août 2010, je collabore également à Slate.fr, Snatch et Technikart. Disclaimer: je porte des chemises à carreaux.


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“Internet Freedom? There’s no app for that!” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech on Tuesday concerning Internet freedom resembled an online activism campaign from Steve Jobs. A year after laying the foundation for the “21st Century Statecraft” (the catch phrase invented by spin doctors to define diplomacy connections), Clinton was once again promoting Internet freedom, though this time she chose her words more carefully.

At the beginning of 2010, her speech coincided with the incident between Google and China. This time, Clinton waited patiently for positive results from the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions before launching into her diatribe. With a storytelling air, she started her speech by referring to the temporary Internet black-out initiated by Moubarak:

A few minutes after midnight on January 28, the Internet went dark across Egypt.

She did not waste much time before mentioning Neda, the young Iranian women who was murdered during the demonstrations against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election. Her acts of martyrdom fueled the “green revolution” along with protesters against Ahmadinejad’s regime. After Clinton praised the liberating nature of the Internet in the recent uprisings, the face of U.S. diplomacy insisted on putting the events in context of the Arab world:

What happened in Egypt and Iran – where this week again violence was used against protesters – was about a great deal more than the Internet. In each case, people protested because of a deep frustration with the political and economic conditions of their lives. They stood and marched and chanted, and the authorities tracked and blocked and detained them. The Internet did not do any of those things. People did.

Without questioning Facebook’s role in the riots inspired by Sidi Bouzid or the importance of a “downgraded channel” in an isolated Egypt, Clinton’s statement seems obvious – but it is not trivial. Moments after Moubarak’s resignation, Google and Facebook adopted similar policies, taking care not to over-emphasize their role in these historic movements. Mark Zuckerberg’s company used very precaution language in an attempt to spare Facebook’s business model in neighboring countries. Formerly promoting the “soft power” of the Internet, Clinton changed gears to focus on “the people.”

Hillary Clinton's discourse in 2010...

... and in 2011

The 3 axes…and WikiLeaks

In a seemingly two-faced manner (The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace), Hillary Clinton raised three challenges facing the U.S. administration, the “ground-rules to protect against wrong-doing and harm.” In attempting to show balance on every point, she lists three the major lines of reasoning, although the first two interpretations are relatively disturbing:

  • Liberty and security. “Without security, liberty is fragile.  Without liberty, security is oppressive,” she nobly declared. She then immediately acknowledged the “threats” of the above mentioned: pornography, human trafficking, terrorism, and cybercrime, which she insinuated was lumped in with hacking (“Governments use the Internet to steal intellectual property and sabotage critical infrastructure”… and so does WikiLeaks).
  • Transparency and confidentiality. From the outset, Clinton denounced WikiLeaks and the “false” debate surrounding the scandal.”Fundamentally, the Wikileaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a brief case.” In using the same political discourse that marked the post 9/11 era, the Secretary of State indirectly dismissed Julian Assange’s work (and the underlying ideals) as a threat to national security.
  • Freedom of speech and fostering tolerance and civility. Recalling the American Muslim leaders’ recent visit to Auschwitz and Dachau, she heavily insisted on the necessity to have multiple means for expression. She used the occasion to reveal that $25 million dollars in additional funding will be allotted in fighting for Internet freedom in authoritarian regimes. Yet it appears that these project have their limitations, as shown from the previous Haystack [FR] catastrophe.

“Do what I say, not what I do”

More than ever, the vague policies resulting from these challenges show the extent of the American government’s schizophrenic character, whose message on digital technology is increasingly following a “do what I say, not what I do” attitude. Clinton reminded her audience that the US States Department has not strongly criticized WikiLeaks because “it is part of the Internet.” She spoke diplomatically when she alluded to a truth that is often ignored: if WikiLeaks had decided to leak the secrets of dictators, the State Department would have embraced such actions. The organization may have even tasted the millions of dollars that the US is pouring into Internet freedom projects. For proof, just listen to Clinton singing the praises of a “Vietnamese lawyer who denounced corruption” along with others advocates.

But there is more to this story. While the Secretary of State was delivering her speech, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) convened to discuss the “new digital age.” Known as an “independent” agency, it is responsible for coordinating public services from Washington to the international scale. Similar to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, the BBG is an establishment which promoted democracy in the Soviet bloc during the cold war.

The final report of the BBG made its findings very clear: the events that shook the Arab world “demonstrates the power of social media.” Another host on the Farsi version of Radio Free Europe took the argument further:

“Without Facebook, nothing is possible these days”.

Under direct orders from the State Department, are these diplomatic tools trying to be autonomous and disconnected from official discourse? While Obama’s technical advisers are tripping over trying to find a consensus, Hillary is proposing an equilibrium between the carrot and stick approach. Yet the digital consciousness in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, and Bahrain could soon change parameters of the situation.

Surveillance in the name of realpolitik

While the State Department deems Internet openness as the Holy Grail of a new network civilization, 100% of American businesses profit from a new market that results from transparency. To avoid losing ground to foreign competition, both large and small corporations comply with local standards to preserve domestic stability. Narus, a small business in California, sold “real-time traffic intelligence equipment” to Egyptian authorities. The computer enterprise Cisco, worth $7.7 billion in sales, was implicated (through a leaked PowerPoint presentation) in assisting Chinese officials’ objectives in censorship. Even Google is still filtering their content across Beijing’s Great Firewall in the name of realpolitik.

Entangled in its own contradictions, the criticisms of the Marshall cyber-plan by certain activist may be short lived. A few months ago, a Tunisian blogger called Sami Ben Gharbia lashed out as the State Department’s policy, highlighting the inconsistencies in the administration:

If the U.S. and other Western governments want to support Internet Freedom they should start by prohibiting the export of censor wares and other filtering software to our countries. After all, most of the tools used to muzzle our online free expression and monitor our activities on the Internet are being engineered and sold by American and Western corporations. The other problem is that the U.S. and other Western governments are not challenged from the inside about their policy. Our U.S. free speech advocates and dear friends should put more pressure on their own government to halt the export of this kind of tools to our regimes instead of lobbying for more money to help build yet another hyped circumvention tool or support dissidents topple their regime.

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Photo credits: Wordle, Flickr CC roberthuffstutter, roberthuffstutter

Translation by: Stefanie Chernow

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