Feb. 4, 2010 -- 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.
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.
Internet Is Engine of Commerce and Freedom
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.
Government-Mandated Technologies Should Be Opposed
Government-mandated technologies such as China's Green Dam should be opposed. And just as critical to Internet freedom, advocates should fight laws that hold Internet service providers and online content providers liable for the content posted by users.
Protection from intermediary liability -- the law in both the U.S. and Europe -- has been the single most important bulwark of Internet free expression, and has allowed the proliferation of innovative services and the emergence of new participatory media at the heart of Web 2.0.
Without this protection, censorship will simply shift from the state to the Internet provider and the expressive potential of Web 2.0 will be lost.
The State Department has already begun to harness social networking tools and circumvention technologies to ensure that those on the front lines of the fight for global Internet freedom have access to information untouched by government censors and tools to organize and collaborate across borders.
Clinton noted in her speech, "Now, ultimately, this issue isn't just about information freedom… It's about whether we live on a planet with one Internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors."
The State Department should continue to support the expanded development and use of such tools. However, we must put this important work in perspective: There is no "app" for Internet freedom and technology alone will not provide a complete solution.
Internet Freedom Begins at Home
Advocating for Internet freedom requires clean hands.
As democratic nations increasingly seek to assert sovereignty over the global network, there has been a rise in ill-advised policies that are sure to spread. While the West decries China's repressive tactics, the West is making some of the same missteps. France recently adopted a "three strikes" law that includes the threat of Internet" banning" for copyright infringers.
Australia has instituted a troubling content-filtering regime. Turkey is blocking YouTube to punish Google's refusal to block content for the entire world. And Italy, already prosecuting several Google executives for the content of a YouTube video, is now poised to enact a law that mandates government licensing and approval of web video platforms and posted videos.
And of course since 9/11, both the U.S. and Western Europe have taken steps that make it easier to spy on the activities of Internet users and access personal information, actions that repressive countries are quick to cite in support of their own surveillance.
After Clinton's speech, Chinese government officials quickly retorted, "[I]n order to oppose terrorism, the American police had the power to search the content of the People's e-mails, and can even -- without good reason -- spy on the Peoples' communications. How does Ms. Hillary's 'Internet freedom, free flow of information' theory explain that?"
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.