Internet Freedom

Freedom in the 21st Century: Alec Ross to Speak on Internet Freedom

In recent years, connection technologies have played an ever-greater role in promoting freedom and openness around the world. In states such as Iran, China, and Egypt, people have been empowered by new tools: social media, mobile phones, the Internet, text messages, online social networks, and others. The Obama Administration has taken a leading role in protecting the exercise of universal freedoms including the freedom to connect, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly on digital media, as outlined by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her historic speech on Internet freedom in January. The State Department has been working hard to use connection technologies to advance the causes of human rights and freedom in our increasingly networked and borderless world.

Alec RossOne of the leaders of this initiative is Alec Ross, Senior Adviser on Innovation to the Secretary of State. Before joining the State Department, Ross served as the convener for technology, media, and telecommunications policy for Obama for America and for the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team where he focused on technology, innovation, and government reform. In 2000, Ross co-founded One Economy, a non-profit, three-person basement operation which, until 2008, he helped lead and grow to the world's largest digital divide organization that connects low-income people to the tools of the digital age.

On April 12, at 12pm, the Global Mobile Technology Initiative, a joint project of NDN and the New Policy Institute, will host Ross as he delivers a speech on the role of connection technologies in open and closed societies. His address will focus on the tension between societies that are increasingly open by virtue of connection technologies, and societies that are increasingly closed by government suppression and manipulation of connection technologies and communications networks.

Please RSVP if you'll be joining us. If not, a live webcast of the event will begin at 12:15 pm.

The Practical Quesitons of Internet Freedom

Well, I just wrote a long blog post and then accidentally deleted it. But it's probably just as well, since it was basically a less-good summary of Ethan Zuckerman's recent essay about the merits and limitations of circumvention technologies-- tools that allow people in repressive states like China and Iran to get around their censors by using a remote server to mask their identity-- and, more broadly, about how we will actually go about the business of promoting internet freedom around the world.

Point is, go read the post.  But I will quote here a couple of my favorite passages. Here, he lays out the case for internet freedom in deeply convinving language:

I think much work on internet censorship isn’t motivated by a theory of change – it’s motivated by a deeply-held conviction (one I share) that the ability to share information is a basic human right. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” The internet is the most efficient system we’ve ever built to allow people to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, and therefore we need to ensure everyone has unfettered internet access. The problem with the Article 19 approach to censorship circumvention is that it doesn’t help us prioritize. It simply makes it imperative that we solve what may be an unsolvable problem.

And then, at the end, Zuckerman offers a few ideas that begin to answer the question of how we can actually support internet freedom. These three struck me as particularly right, and you may hear me riffing on these themes in coming weeks:

- We need to shift our thinking from helping users in closed societies access blocked content to helping publishers reach all audiences. In doing so, we may gain those publishers as a valuable new set of allies as well as opening a new class of technical solutions.

- If our goal is to allow people in closed societies to access an online public sphere, or to use online tools to organize protests, we need to bring the administrators of these tools into the dialog. Secretary Clinton suggests that we make free speech part of the American brand identity – let’s find ways to challenge companies to build blocking resistance into their platforms and to consider internet freedom to be a central part of their business mission. We need to address the fact that making their platforms unblockable has a cost for content hosts and that their business models currently don’t reward them for providing service to these users.

- The US government should treat internet filtering – and more aggressive hacking and DDoS attacks – as a barrier to trade. The US should strongly pressure governments in open societies like Australia and France to resist the temptation to restrict internet access, as their behavior helps China and Iran make the case that their censorship is in line with international norms. And we need to fix US treasury regulations make it difficult and legally ambiguous for companies like Microsoft and projects like SourceForge to operate in closed societies. If we believe in Internet Freedom, a first step needs to be rethinking these policies so they don’t hurt ordinary internet users.

Saturday Retina Tickler

To please your eyes and stimulate your brain cells, I offer you (courtesy of Wayan) a word cloud derived from Secretary Clinton's speech on internet freedom:

Internet Freedom Word Cloud

Happy Saturday!

China's Censorship and Information Freedom

The Chinese government has taken some umbrage at Secretary Clinton's speech on internet freedom last week. The Secretary, to be sure, called China out for censoring the internet, but she couched that criticism in pretty cozy language:

The internet has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it is fabulous. There are so many people in China now online. But countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century. Now, the United States and China have different views on this issue, and we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently in the context of our positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship.

Ma Zhaoxu, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, was less friendly in his response:

The US attacks China's internet policy, indicating that China has been restricting internet freedom. We resolutely oppose such remarks and practices that contravene facts and undermine China-US relations.

China's internet is open. China is a country with the most vibrant internet development. By the end of last year, China had 384 million internet users, 3.68 million websites and 180 million blogs. China's Constitution guarantees people's freedom of speech. It is China's consistent policy to promote the development of internet. China has its own national conditions and cultural traditions. It supervises internet according to law, which is in parallel with the international paractice...

We urge the US to respect facts and stop attacking China under the excuse of the so-called freedom of internet.

Once we're past the PRC's spurious claims about how free their internet is, we can see this in the context of a much bigger picture. Much like our ongoing spats over Tibet, Taiwan and human rights, the Chinese see internet policy as a purely domestic matter, and take criticism of their policy as an affront to their sovereignty. Given our persistent failure to affect China's behavior on any other sovereignty issues, we're likely to continue receving nothing but hostility when we bring up internet freedom.

But China's trucluence shouldn't be taken as a reason to shut up about internet freedom and censorship. As the Secretary made clear in her speech, freedom of information is at the heart of both our economic prosperity and our national security. Deeper than that, freedom of information is-- in itself-- a core value of American society.

The progress of freedom around the world has been swamped because developing countries see China as a living example that economic success can be achieved without relaxing the grip of authoritarian rule. For the first time in decades, perhaps centuries, freedom is in retreat around the world. Now more than ever, America must stand as a beacon of liberalism and an exemplar of the power of openness.

We may not get the needle to move on censorship in China, but we must be vocal in support of information freedom-- an unambiguous good-- and in our criticism of those who stifle liberty anywhere on the globe.

Clinton Stands Up for Internet Freedom

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a major address this morning on Internet Freedom.  She riffed on FDR's "Four Freedoms," laid down the gauntlet with states that curtail internet freedom, and wrapped it up with this analogy about a Hatian girl who was saved by a text message.  It gave me goosebumps:

So let me close by asking you to remember the little girl who was pulled from the rubble on Monday in Port-au-Prince. She’s alive, she was reunited with her family, she will have the chance to grow up because these networks took a voice that was buried and spread it to the world. No nation, no group, no individual should stay buried in the rubble of oppression. We cannot stand by while people are separated from the human family by walls of censorship. And we cannot be silent about these issues simply because we cannot hear the cries.

Clinton NewseumAs a reader of this blog, I'll have to insist that you read the whole thing, or watch the video here. I'll give out prizes to anybody who does both.

Really, this was an important speech. More than anything we've heard previously, this begins to lay out some of the ideas that will underpin the "Obama Doctrine." Secretary Clinton took a strong, unambiguous position for the freedom of information.  Even if she's not particularly savvy with the technology itself (she joked about this), Secretary Clinton understands its power, and she spoke as someone who has imagined a truly networked world-- in all its potential and all its risks. 

Anyhow, I liked the speech, and NDN liked the speech, as it was very much in line with some of our most foundational arguments. Here are some other people who have used their access to the global network to share their feelings about the speech:

- Ethan Zuckerman was encouraged "to hear Secretary Clinton sounding like a dyed in the wool cyberutopian."

- Jose Antonio Vargas applauds Clinton's adoption of the idea that access to the internet, in repressed states, can be equivalent to freedom.

- The Guardian offered a good preview of the speech yesterday, illustrating some of the intellectual roots of the ideas it contained.  They also managed to squeeze in a quote from yours truly, vastly upping the quality of the piece in the eyes of my mother.

- Senator John Kerry echoes many of Clinton's sentiments and ideas.

- Evgeny Morozov, who doesn't like anything, didn't like the speech.  Some valid criticism, some less so.

- The AP read the speech as an assault on China and other censorious countries. Strange reading, I'd say.

Secretary Clinton's Internet Freedom Speech

If there is any organizing principle or central theme to my 20 years in political life, it has been promotion of the idea that the technology and media revolution taking place across the world today had the potential to dramatically improve the human condition, perhaps on a scale never seen in human history. 

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech about Internet Freedom that will be written about and discussed for years to come, and may be the most important speech I have ever personally witnessed.   I strongly encourage you to watch it and read the text which is available here. I won't try to dumb down the speech to a short post, for it needs to be read in its entirety.  It was a big speech, inspirational, smart, on target, and more than anything else began to reconnect the 21st century American center-left to the successful liberal internationalism of President Franklin Roosevelt and its mid-20th century past (If you'd like to read the original text of the Four Freedom Speech by FDR visit here). 

For those who follow NDN you will see many of the themes and ideas we've promoted in recent years in the vision and words of the speech.  Through our friends at State, and through the constant advocacy of these themes, I have no doubt that our work here helped inspire and inform the argument she made this morning.  And for that I thank all of the NDNers, here in the office, and throughout our national network who played a small role in this big speech today. 

For more on our work in this area please review this comprehensive aggregation put together by Sam Dupont earlier this week; review Sam's excellent writeup of the initial work of the transformative 21st Century Statecraft Initiative; enjoy this recent post on FDR's Four Freedoms: read this front-page Huffington Post essay I wrote in the spring, Obama: No Realist He; and check out a 2007 call from me and Alec Ross to make the promotion of internet freedom a central tenet of American foreign policy.  

I have known Secretary Clinton well for 18 years.  We first met when I was the Communications Director of the 1992 Clinton New Hampshire primary effort.  I have never been more proud of her than I am right now for delivering a courageous, vital and necessary speech updating America's foreign policy for a new and very promising century.

On Internet Freedom

Later this morning Secretary Clinton will be delivering a major address on Internet Freedom.  You can watch it live on the State Department site.  I will be headed over in a bit to check it out in person. 

Her Senior Advisor on Innovation, Alec Ross, has been a significant force for pushing ahead on this very important initiative.   In the spring of 2007 Alec and I wrote a paper for NDN which made called for making open and free access to the Internet a core pillar of American foreign policy.  Here is the key passage:

A single global communications network, composed of Internet, mobile, SMS, cable and satellite technology, is rapidly tying the world's people together as never before. The core premise of this paper is that the emergence of this network is one of the seminal events of the early 21st century. Increasingly, the world's commerce, finance, communications, media and information are flowing through this network. Half of the world's 6 billion people are now connected to this network, many through powerful and inexpensive mobile phones. Each year more of the world's people become connected to the network, its bandwidth increases, and its use becomes more integrated into all that we do. Connectivity to this network, and the ability to master it once on, has become an essential part of life in the 21st century, and a key to opportunity, success and fulfillment for the people of the world.

We believe it should be a core priority of the United States to ensure that all the world's people have access to this global network and have the tools to use it for their own life success. There is no way any longer to imagine free societies without the freedom of commerce, expression, and community, which this global network can bring. Bringing this network to all, keeping it free and open and helping people master its use must be one of the highest priorities of those in power in the coming years.

NDN Backgrounder: Internet Freedom

Last week, Google announced that they would no longer censor their search results in China.  On Thursday, Hillary Clinton will be delivering a major address on internet freedom. We at NDN have long been leaders in this conversation around how the internet and the global communications network can be a force for freedom. In 2007, in the introduction to A Laptop in Every Backpack, Simon Rosenberg and Alec Ross wrote:

We believe it should be a core priority of the United States to ensure that all the world’s people have access to this global network and have the tools to use it for their own life success. There is no way any longer to imagine free societies without the freedom of commerce, expression, and community, which this global network can bring. Bringing this network to all, keeping it free and open and helping people master its use must be one of the highest priorities of those in power in the coming years.

Since releasing that paper in 2007, we have written a great deal more on these subjects, and we have assembled below some of our best work on the subject. For future commentary, be sure to check Global Mobile, our blog about the power of connectivity and technology. Enjoy:

  • Question for the Week
    1/18/10: by Sam duPont
    Sam reflects on recent statements by President Obama that begin to lay out a liberal worldview, and asks whether we can continue business-as-usual with China, given recent events.
  • Are Free and Open Societies in Retreat?
    1/17/10: by Simon Rosenberg
    Simon responds to a recent essay in the Economist that sees global challenges to liberty, and observes that the great battles of the 21st century will be open vs. closed, rather than left vs. right.
  • Reflections on 21st Century Statecraft
    1/15/10: by Sam duPont
    One year into President Obama's first term, Sam duPont looks at "21st Century Statecraft," one of this administration's defining foreign policy initiatives so far, and identifies the actions that have comprised this initiative.
  • Should Access to Mobile Networks be a Universal Right?
    12/21/09: by Simon Rosenberg
    Looking at the Administration's recent commitment to protection of human rights in Iran, Simon asks whether—in an age when we use our mobile phones to do so much—we should consider access to our devices and networks a universal right.
  • Twitter, Iran, and More: Impressions from the Front Lines of the Global Media Revolution
    7/15/09: with Nico Pitney, Eric Jaye, and Theo Yedinsky
    In this discussion of the role of Twitter in politics and media, we hosted Nico Pitney, the Huffington Post reporter who brought the voices of Iranian protesters out into the open, and Eric Jaye and Theo Yedinsky of Gavin Newsom’s groundbreaking gubernatorial campaign in California.
    Video: Nico Pitney
    Video: Eric Jaye & Theo Yedinsky
    Video: Q&A
  • Alec Ross, Tom Kalil & Tim Wirth on the Power of Mobile
    6/26/09: with Alec Ross, Tom Kalil, and Sen. Tim Wirth

    NDN co-hosted the release of a new paper jointly published by the UN Foundation and the Vodaphone Foundation examining the potential for mobile technology to improve healthcare delivery in the developing world. Speaking at the event were Alec Ross, Tom Kalil, and former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth. Simon Rosenberg hosted the discussion.
    Transcript: Simon Rosenberg (intro)
    Video: Alec Ross
    Video: Tom Kalil
    Video: Senator Tim Wirth
    Video: Simon Rosenberg (interview)
  • Obama: No Realist He
    6/16/09: by Simon Rosenberg
    Simon argues that, given who President Obama is and what he represents, he does not have the option to become a foreign policy realist. Instead, he must become a chief global advocate of free and open societies.
  • Harnessing the Mobile Revolution
    10/8/08: By Tom Kalil

    Tom Kalil, now Deputy Policy Director of Science and Technology at the White House, authored a paper for the New Policy Institute analyzing the power of mobile to create economic growth, better public health, and stronger democracies in the developing world.
    PDF: Harnessing the Mobile Revolution
  • The Power of Mobile
    4/14/08: by Simon Rosenberg

    On the heels of stories about the potential of mobile technology to help fuel protests, Simon asks what power mobile phones can have to fight poverty, as well.
  • A Global Recession for Democracies?
    3/8/08: by Simon Rosenberg
    Despite a global optimism about the spread of democracy, Simon notes that it has faced challenges and setbacks in recent years.
  • A Laptop in Every Backpack
    05/01/07: By Alec Ross and Simon Rosenberg
    Alec Ross, now Senior Adviser on Innovation to Secretary of State Clinton, co-authored this paper with Simon, in which they argued that connectivity to the global information network is an essential part of life in the 21st century, and called for the deployment of netbooks to prepare our children for this new world.
    PDF: A Laptop in Every Backpack
    Video: Alec Ross
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