Clinton unveils U.S. policy on Internet freedom

The secretary of state announces new U.S. policy that urges countries around the world to give citizens the freedom to access the Internet.

WASHINGTON--Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton unveiled on Thursday a new U.S. policy that encourages the world's governments to ensure their citizens have open access to the Internet.

The speech comes a little more than a week after Google's blunt declaration about Chinese censorship and illegal electronic intrusions, and the company's assertion that it will pull out of China if it can't reach a reasonable understanding with the Beijing government.

9:54 a.m. EST Clinton took the stage here at the Newseum, a museum dedicated to the news industry, and appealed to the audience to think of the communications networks that have been destroyed in last week's massive earthquake in Haiti. She also noted how a mother and daughter in Haiti enabled their rescue by sending a text message. Clinton called communication networks a "new nervous system" for the world.

"In many respects, information has never been so free," Clinton said. She referred to the way that virtually anyone can broadcast information to the Internet at any time. But governments can also use Internet and communications technologies to repress their people, she said, "just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns."

"We stand for a single Internet, where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas," Clinton said.

Hillary Clinton speaking on Internet freedom
"The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly in cyberspace." -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking Thursday in a major policy statement. State Department photo

10:01 a.m. EST As late as Wednesday morning, as CNET News reported at the time, it remained unclear whether Clinton would address the China-Google incident directly, or whether she will employ more circuitous diplomatic language.

The final version of the speech does single out "Chinese authorities" directly, while including other indirect references--"we must work to advance the freedom of worship online"--to the communist nation's sometimes brutal treatment of its citizens. For example, some reports have cited torture, persecution, or imprisonment of Chinese Christians, especially those who worship outside of a state-registered church.

10:05 a.m. EST Clinton compared the actions of some governments in censoring the Internet to the Berlin Wall, holding back the freedoms of their citizens. The U.S. believes the Internet requires some basic freedoms for its users, including the freedom of expression--the Internet as the equivalent of the modern-day town square.


Hillary Clinton on Internet freedom
Interesting excerpts from the secretary of state's speech,
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Still, that doesn't mean the U.S. looks kindly on all forms of digital expression, such as al-Qaeda's use of the Internet to organize and promote violence against the U.S., Clinton said. Wrestling with the need to allow free expression while seeking out those who wish to take down a government is a challenge for countries around the world, and some may very well choose to err on the side of repression.

Like expression, freedom of religion is another basic right of Internet users. "Prayers will always travel on higher networks," Clinton joked. But governments that deny the expression of religious beliefs on the Internet are denying their citizens basic rights, she said.

The economic benefits of Internet freedom are well understood in the U.S., with venture capitalists hovering around clusters of 20-something techies in hopes they've created the next big thing. But such benefits are very much new in places like Africa, where access to things like mobile phones and micro-loans is having a big impact on economic growth, Clinton said. "A connection to information networks is like an on-ramp to modernity," she said.

"Chinese authorities need to provide an explanation for the cyberattacks originating on Chinese soil that led Google to this decision (to say it might exit China)."
--U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

10:06 a.m. EST In what some wags are already calling the Clinton Doctrine, the secretary of state has positioned her speech as a 21st-century upgrade to ideas that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt outlined in January 1941. FDR's address to Congress at the time--the audio is online--outlined what he described as freedom of speech and expression; freedom of worship; freedom from want; freedom from fear. (FDR's freedom from fear seems almost quaint nearly 70 years later amidst U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq: he called for a "worldwide reduction of armaments" so "that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor--anywhere in the world.")

Clinton's upgrade to Roosevelt's list is a fifth freedom: the freedom to connect. "The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly in cyberspace," she said. "It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate in the name of progress."

10:19 a.m. EST It's time for "21st century statecraft," Clinton said. This includes funds for programs that ensure access to the Internet and fight against government censorship, she said. The U.S. will establish a program in pursuit of this goal.

She gave the example of a mobile phone application that could evaluate governments and root out corruption. The hardware and software are basically out there already, she said, but mobile application developers have no real financial motivation to create such an application. That's going to change, Clinton said, although she didn't provide specifics.

Technology companies will have to help, Clinton said. Microsoft created a "digital doctor" application that is a good example of what she is trying to promote.

Clinton has assembled a team to work on this notion of 21st century statecraft, she said. They are working on items such as mobile banking and social networks in Pakistan.

10:25 a.m. EST Clinton finally addressed the recent cyberattacks, widely believed in security circles to be the work of the Chinese government.

"We look to the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough review of the activities that led Google to make its announcements," she said.

The U.S. and China have different views on control of the Internet, she noted. The State Department will address those concerns in due course, she said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton outlines U.S. policy on Internet freedom on Thursday. Tom Krazit/CNET

10:28 a.m. EST Thursday's speech ratcheted up the forcefulness of the language employed by the State Department regarding the cyberattacks on Google and other tech companies. Earlier this week, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told reporters that the "Chinese are in the best position to explain this, and we are asking them for an explanation."

On Thursday, Clinton's remarks were more direct, stressing that Washington now expects Beijing to answer some questions about the unlawful intrusions.

"Chinese authorities need to provide an explanation for the cyberattacks originating on Chinese soil that led Google to this decision," she said.

10:32 a.m. EST Clinton fired a broadside against U.S. media companies that do business in China.

"Censorship should not be accepted by any company from anywhere. American companies need to make a principled stand," she said, alluding to Google's threat to pull out of China unless the company is allowed to offer an uncensored search engine.

Microsoft, for one, reiterated its commitment to operating in China following Google's announcement.

Clinton closed by reminding the audience of the girl in Haiti who was rescued via text message, saying that the U.S. should not allow anyone to be buried buried--under rubble or under censorship--in this day and age.

10:40 a.m. EST An audience member asked Clinton how she is supposed to manage employees in China who are subject to oversight and even detention at times. Without directly answering the question, Clinton referred to the talks the U.S. government has had with the Chinese government over these issues. There is a "foundation of understanding" between the two countries, but disagreements on several issues, she said.

10:47 a.m. EST That's it for the speech. Panel discussions will follow. Check back later for more coverage of the day's events.