The United States on Tuesday pledged strong support for cyber-dissidents worldwide who wish to circumvent government censorship and protect themselves from reprisals.
In her first major address following popular uprisings that ousted leaders in Egypt and Tunisia and which were fueled by social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed not to let curbs on Internet freedoms hold back growing calls for democracy around the world.
"We are convinced that an open Internet fosters long-term peace, progress, and prosperity," she said in a speech at the George Washington University in Washington. "The reverse is also true."
"An Internet ... where different governments can block activity or change the rules on a whim—where speech is censored or punished, and privacy does not exist—that is an Internet that can cut off opportunities for peace and progress and discourage innovation and entrepreneurship," she said.
Clinton warned that regimes that clamp down on Internet freedom could pay the price in terms of their nation's development.
"Leaders worldwide have a choice to make," Clinton said. "They can let the Internet in their countries flourish, and take the risk that the freedoms it enables will lead to a greater demand for political rights. Or they can ... risk losing all the economic and social benefits that come from a networked society."
"In China, the government censors content and redirects search requests to error pages ... In Vietnam, bloggers who criticize the government are arrested and abused."
Misuse of Internet
Clinton said the Internet landscape is "complex and combustible" and that the U.S. government is investing heavily in cyber security to prevent misuse of the Internet. But she added: "We place ourselves on the side of openness."
She sidestepped debates over whether the Internet is a tool for liberation or repression.
"The Internet isn’t good or bad. It is both. It is neither," Clinton said.
"What matters is what people who go online do there, and what principles should guide us as we come together in cyberspace," she said.
Clinton said the U.S. government would support freedoms of speech, press, and association online, dubbing this "the freedom to connect."
"The United States supports this freedom for people everywhere, and we have called on other nations to do the same."
Clinton's own department was on the receiving end of such freedom last year, after whistleblowing website WikiLeaks published thousands of secret State Department cables.
"The Internet is also a channel for private communications ... There must be protection for confidential communications online," Clinton said, in a reference to the leaks.
"Governments also rely on confidential communications, online as well as offline."
She said the WikiLeaks incident began with an act of theft "just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase."
But she said that governments have a duty to be transparent.
"The fact that WikiLeaks uses the Internet is not the reason we challenge its actions."
She denied the Obama administration had put pressure on companies to deny services to WikiLeaks. "That is not the case," she said.
"Many of the cables released by WikiLeaks related to human rights work carried on around the world ... it is dangerous work ... WikiLeaks exposed people to greater risk."
She also hit out at hate speech, the power of which is amplified by the Internet, but said the answer is more speech, not suppression.
"People should speak out again and again against intolerance," she added. "Deleting writing, blocking content, arresting speakers, these actions ... have no effect on ideas."
The State Department has received 68 proposals for nearly six times the U.S. $30 million it has available to fund Internet freedom-related projects, and no money will be handed out for at least another two months.
One proposal submitted has been to fund "circuit riders" in Burma, experts who tour Internet cafes teaching people how to set up secure e-mail accounts.
The department also plans to finance programs that help users to evade Internet firewalls, like the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship that makes up China's Great Firewall, or GFW.
But circumvention tools can be rendered useless in countries where the authorities simply pull the plug on the Internet, as happened in Egypt during the protests against the government of Hosni Mubarak.
And Internet access was suspended for months in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang following ethnic violence between Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese in July 2009.
Human rights workers will also receive training about how to secure their e-mail from surveillance or wipe incriminating data from cellphones if they are detained.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.