As antigovernment movements continue in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and elsewhere, a side note to all the human energy propelling these movements is the role being played by Internet and social network sites -- and government attempts to suppress communication via these online outlets.
By now hundreds of media stories have detailed the part that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and blogs played in organizing the push for government change in Egypt, a historic (and largely peaceful) movement that prompted the demise of the decades-old dictatorship of President Hosni Mubarak. Similar antigovernment movements are underway elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa -- including Bahrain, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen.
These monumental events served as a backdrop for a recent speech by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which she introduced a U.S. policy on Internet freedom, intended to help people governed under repressive regimes to get around filters and Internet shutdowns. In her speech the Secretary hailed the power of the Internet and called for freer global Internet use rights, but also cautioned on the ease with which the Internet can be used to place individuals and institutions at risk.
The Internet served as a vital rallying instrument of free speech and organization in recent antigovernment protests in Egypt. Activists and organizers pressing for a new government took to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, email, and cell phones to coalesce protesters and coordinate events, until, after the first days of protest, the Mubarak regime shut down first Facebook and Twitter and then most of the Internet. Activists scrambled to use proxy servers to continue tweeting, and Google and Twitter quickly teamed up to create a Speak to Tweet service that allows users without Internet connections to tweet by phone. By circumventing the government's shutdown, activists were able to continue to communicate during the course of the revolution, until finally forcing Mubarak to step down on February 11, 2011.
The demise of the Mubarak regime and the promise of a new direction in Egypt has sparked antigovernment unrest elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa -- including in Libya, where President Moammar Kadafi continues to cling to power. Violent clashes between government and opposition forces have led to hundreds if not thousands of deaths, and the Libyan government has taken steps to block Internet access across the embattled nation.
The role of the Internet in general -- and Facebook, Twitter, and blogs in particular -- in organizing and fueling these monumental antigovernment movements has attracted a great deal of international attention from media and government officials alike.
On February 15, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out U.S. policy on Internet freedom in a groundbreaking speech before an audience at George Washington University. Below are some key remarks excerpted from that speech. (You can read Secretary Clinton's speech in its entirety on the U.S. State Department website at www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/02/156619.htm.)
On the pervasiveness of the Internet and the need for global standards: "The internet has become the public space of the 21st century -- the world's town square, classroom, marketplace, coffeehouse, and nightclub. We all shape and are shaped by what happens there, all 2 billion of us and counting. And that presents a challenge. To maintain an internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that will guide us, what rules exist and should not exist and why, what behaviors should be encouraged or discouraged and how."
On government restraint of Internet use in specific countries: "In China, the government censors content and redirects search requests to error pages. In Burma, independent news sites have been taken down with distributed denial of service attacks. In Cuba, the government is trying to create a national intranet, while not allowing their citizens to access the global internet. In Vietnam, bloggers who criticize the government are arrested and abused. In Iran, the authorities block opposition and media websites, target social media, and steal identifying information about their own people in order to hunt them down."
On the downside to unchecked Internet freedom: "The qualities that make the internet a force for unprecedented progress -- its openness, its leveling effect, its reach and speed -- also enable wrongdoing on an unprecedented scale. Terrorists and extremist groups use the internet to recruit members, and plot and carry out attacks. Human traffickers use the internet to find and lure new victims into modern-day slavery. Child pornographers use the internet to exploit children. Hackers break into financial institutions, cell phone networks, and personal email accounts."
On the position of the U.S. government: "On the spectrum of internet freedom, we place ourselves on the side of openness. Now, we recognize that an open internet comes with challenges. It calls for ground rules to protect against wrongdoing and harm. And internet freedom raises tensions, like all freedoms do. But we believe the benefits far exceed the costs."
On the three main challenges that must be faced in protecting and defending Internet freedom: "First, achieving both liberty and security. Second, protecting both transparency and confidentiality. Third, protecting free expression while fostering tolerance and civility."
On steps taken by the U.S. government: "In the last three years, we have awarded more than $20 million in competitive grants through an open process, including interagency evaluation by technical and policy experts, to support a burgeoning group of technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against internet repression. This year, we will award more than $25 million in additional funding. I've created the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues, to enhance our work on cyber security and other issues and facilitate cooperation across the State Department and with other government agencies."
U.S. policy on Internet freedom is still in its early stages, and there is not yet a definitive proposal or treaty from global organizations like the United Nations--and of course, unprecedented events are still unfolding around the world. In the wake of Clinton's speech, China has already cautioned the United States against using the rallying cry of Internet freedom as a pretense to interfere in that country's affairs (and appears to have blocked Twitter and LinkedIn in the last few days). And the U.S. government's still-imprecise endorsement of "Internet freedom" shouldn't be seen as unqualified or absolute, especially given some government officials' equating WikiLeaks to a national security threat. Indeed, Clinton's speech was equal parts praise for the power of the Internet and the free flow of information on one hand and caution on the Internet's ability to "enable wrongdoing on an unprecedented scale" on the other (hence the call for common global standards on Internet access and use). And, finally, the flip side to Internet freedom for citizens living in an oppressive regime is that their government can use the same online technologies to track subversive content and punish outspoken dissidents.
Secretary of State Clinton's speech is perhaps best viewed as an urgent invitation for a global dialogue on Internet freedom. And it's a conversation that's becoming increasingly necessary as the Internet lends a louder voice and a stronger link to people demanding government change around the globe. It is encouraging to know, though, that the State Department is financing programs such as security training for human rights workers around the world and the development of circumvention services to allow Internet users to evade government firewalls and other barriers to Internet use.