21st Century Statecraft: the Internet as Diplomat

How Far Is the U.S. Willing to Go?

This is perhaps the most vexing question posed by Clinton's call to action.

If the United States is serious about Internet freedom, how far is it willing to go? Is the U.S. willing to step back and look at the weaknesses in our own law -- for example privacy -- which provides very little protection from government access to our personal information online?

Is the U.S. willing to criticize our allies when they adopt Internet policies that threaten the Internet? And as we address urgent issues like cybersecurity, will we balance our need to protect networks with our commitment to freedom?

Similarly, as important as it is to enforce copyright laws, we must not let that agenda override the larger policy goals of free speech and human rights.

On the Front Lines

The other key actor in the pursuit of global Internet freedom must be the Internet and technology industry that operates in these challenging environments.

Clinton couldn't have made her directive to corporations any more clear: "American companies need to make a principled stand [against censorship everywhere]. This needs to be part of our national brand."

As players in the struggle to protect global Internet freedom, companies have a responsibility to chart a responsible and accountable path forward, engage in responsible practices, and manage the human rights risk they face. In taking a principled stand, companies should align with efforts such as the Global Network Initiative, www.globalnetworkinitiative.org.

The GNI "goes beyond mere statements of principles and establishes mechanisms to promote real accountability and transparency," Clinton said.

As Clinton emphasized, it "comes down to trust" between companies and their customers. "No matter where you live, people want to believe that what they put into the Internet is not going to be used against them," Clinton said.

Companies must also demand that the U.S. scrupulously protect the rights of Internet users in American policy: Industry should insist that our government privacy laws be updated to reflect the proper balance between security and individual rights, and protest rather than collaborate when asked by their government to cut legal corners.

Companies must also be mindful of how their policy recommendations in areas like copyright enforcement do not set bad precedents that can be used by repressive regimes to justify human rights violations, even as companies pursue legitimate business goals. The tech industry's commitment to Internet freedom begins at home.

Clinton's speech was just the starting point for a wider discussion about the U.S. government's role in keeping the Internet open, innovative and free.

The fight for global Internet freedom will involve a complex calculus of challenges and obstacles. But it is a fight we can't afford to shirk and one we dare not turn our backs on.

Leslie Harris is president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.

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