January was a remarkable month for the Internet. It had to do with Google and human rights.
Google took a principled stand for human rights and global Internet freedom by defying the censorship edicts of the Chinese government, in the direct aftermath of evidence that China-based cyberattacks cracked open a number of Gmail accounts — including those of well-known human rights activists.
For Google, enough is enough: in light of an increasingly difficult operating environment, the company drew a line in the sand and said it would pull its business out of China if the government's censorship demands persisted.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a historic speech that vaulted the Internet into the center of U.S. foreign policy. She said freedoms made possible by the Internet were now a key part of all American diplomatic efforts.
"On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does," said Clinton. "We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world's information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it."
The secretary called for a reaffirmation of our deepest held democratic values in the new digital era by developing capacity for 21st century statecraft.
"By advancing this agenda, we align our principles, our economic goals, and our strategic priorities," she said. "We need to work toward a world in which access to networks and information brings people closer together and expands the definition of the global community."
Clinton's speech put the world on notice that the U.S intends to put Internet freedom at the center of its foreign policy agenda.
Now the hard work begins to translate this high level commitment into action, using all the tools of diplomacy, trade, and foreign aid at the government's disposal.
"[T]echnologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights," Clinton said in her speech.
And it is precisely because of this powerful dichotomy that the U.S. government must push for a global policy environment that promotes the Internet as an agent for freedom, human rights, democratic reform, and economic development.
Accomplishing this task will require a close examination of the positions the U.S. takes in myriad multilateral bodies, treaty negotiations and bilateral talks to ensure that when our diplomats speak, their message is fully consistent with our high level commitment to Internet freedom.
We also need to equip advocates around the world to work for policies that support an open and participatory Internet and to fight against those that put the building blocks for repression in place.
The Internet has become an engine of both freedom and commerce because of early policy choices that disfavor government gatekeepers in the middle of the network, and favor power and decentralized decision making at the ends, in the hands of users.
Rather than installing government filters, as China and Iran have done, or mandating that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) undertake the task, advocates should insist that users be empowered to make content choices for themselves and their families, using the vast array of blocking and filtering tools the market provides.