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Clinton speech pushes for Internet freedom

At a talk at George Washington University, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton champions the benefits and challenges of a free and open Internet around the world.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
3 min read

With freedom--both in the real world and online--much in the news lately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech in Washington, D.C., yesterday that cautioned nations that try to block the Internet and other vital services as a way of stifling their citizens.

U.S. State Department

In her address at George Washington University on Internet freedom, Clinton pointed out that Egypt's efforts to control the protests of its citizens by cutting their lines of communication ultimately failed. Instead, people continued to protest, the government turned the Internet back on, and in the end, former President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign.

Clinton also mentioned Tunisia, where a government that censored the Internet was also eventually brought down by the will of the people. But she cited other nations as well, such as Iran, where the government has both used and blocked technology to repress its people, and Syria, which just sentenced a teenager to five years in prison for political opinions she expressed on her blog.

"We believe that governments who have erected barriers to Internet freedom, whether they're technical filters or censorship regimes or attacks on those who exercise their rights to expression and assembly online, will eventually find themselves boxed in," Clinton said, according to a transcript of the speech. "They will face a dictator's dilemma and will have to choose between letting the walls fall or paying the price to keep them standing."

But Internet freedom isn't black and white. Clinton reminded the audience that the very openness of the Internet, which paves the way for progress, also allows terrorists, child pornographers, hackers, and others to abuse that freedom. She also touched on the U.S. government's own conflict with WikiLeaks.

In her speech, Clinton addressed the political reaction to WikiLeaks' exposure of classified documents. Drawing a line in the sand, she condemned the publication of these documents saying that it started with an "act of theft." And responding to those who feel any government document should be in the open for all to see, she naturally disagreed, reiterating the familiar claim that the publication of such documents puts diplomats, activists, and ordinary citizens at risk.

"The United States could neither provide for our citizens' security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our efforts," Clinton said. "Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise...By publishing diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks exposed people to even greater risk."

Clinton also commented on the calls among some politicians to dub WikiLeaks a terrorist group, pointing out that there's a fine line between expressing views and actually enforcing public policy. And for those who believed the government put pressure on private companies to block certain services from WikiLeaks, Clinton denied such charges despite calls by some politicians for companies to sever their ties with the whistle=blowing site.

Yesterday's speech on Internet freedom followed a similar one made by Clinton just over a year ago in which she discussed free speech online and the reported attempts by China to hack into Google and other companies to spy on human rights activists.