Here is a first round of reflections on Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom:
1. I was taken aback by how much Cold War rhetoric she managed to work into it. Multiple references to 1989, fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the Information Iron Curtain (as Friedmanesque a metaphor as it gets). It’s as if the last 20 years and globalization did not happen. The view of authoritarianism that she articulated in the speech smacked of a memo written by a bunch of confused Kremlinologists. I guess no sane American politician would ever acknowledge that information could be the opium of the masses, but acting as if today’s Russians, Iranians, or Chinese are totally cut off from information/travel/globalization is kind of silly. The very thought that authoritarianism can survive in the age of information abundance scares the bejesus out of American policy-makers, so they simply prefer to skirt it. I doubt that such self-denial would pay off in the long run.
2. The problem with such an anachronistic view of authoritarianism — which supposedly relies on a very rigorous system of censorship — is that it doesn’t explain countries like Russia or Egypt, where there is technically very little censorship per se (I bet that Russian has less Internet censorship than Australia or the United Kingdom). Unfortunately, I didn’t hear anything about the evolving nature of Internet control (e.g. that controlling the Internet now includes many other activities — propaganda, DDoS attacks, physical intimidation of selected critics/activists). If we keep framing this discussion only as a censorship issue, we are unlikely to solve it.
3. Clinton was too soft on Chinese leaders, essentially granting them the right to censor whatever they’d like simply because they have “different views.” I doubt that would go well with the Republicans and others who have chided the White House for being too soft on human rights. Her remarks about the need to incorporate Internet freedom into corporate social responsibility for American companies working in authoritarian countries are valid, but I doubt it would help to solve the problem: local Chinese companies will simply fill in the gaps. Anti-censorship tools are not going to help either, because Chinese Internet companies delete content at its root (a point that Rebecca MacKinnon made during Wednesday’s panel).
4. Clinton’s remarks about the need to go after those who initiat cyber-attacks also puzzled me. She is probably unaware of the numerous campaigns launched by American hacktivists on the websites of the Iranian government. Will those be persecuted too? The U.S. government really needs to develop and then adopt a more coherent view on the ethics of cyberwarfare; otherwise, the U.S. State Dept will be accused of duplicity. We can’t be tolerating cyberattacks in one context and criticizing them in another context (I wrote more about it here).
5. I’ll give Clinton credit for pointing out that authoritarian states are also avid consumers of new technologies, which they use to repress and identity dissent. But she could have developed this idea much further (see my Prospect piece for more details on this phenomenon), pointing out numerous fallacies in how we think about the liberating potential of information … Instead she just framed it as the typical “technology is neutral; we are not” kind of debate. On top of that, she threw in al Qaeda and terrorist networks, which undermined the bigger point (I think).
6. The speech made it obvious that State Department officials do not have a coherent view on online anonymity. On the one hand, they want to crack down on intellectual property theft and terrorists; on the other hand, they want to protect Iranian and the Chinese dissidentss. Well, let me break the hard news: You can’t have it both ways and the sooner you get on with “anonymity for everyone” rhetoric, the more you’ll accomplish. I am very pessimistic on the future of online anonymity in general — I think there is a good chance it will be eliminated by 2015 — and this hesitance by the State Department does not make me feel any more optimistic.
7. Clinton also didn’t mention the most obvious reform the State Department can push forward: making it easier for American tech companies to operate in authoritarian countries that currently have U.S. trade sanctions imposed on them. This is a very important issue that I’ve touched upon on this blog and elsewhere several times (see here and here). We can’t possibly expect Internet freedom to flourish in such countries if the U.S. Treasury continues imposing silly rules — which American tech companies tend to interpret too over-zealously — while the U.S. State Department does nothing but talk about “Information Iron Curtains”. Why don’t they lift up for their own curtains for a change?
8. Overall, I was disappointed with the speech — it lacked depth. I didn’t sense any coherent intellectual vision underpinning the State Department’s digital strategy (sorry, I refuse to buy into “21st Century Statecraft” concept — what other model of statecraft are they expected to work with, the one from the 18th century?). It’s great that they are going to launch a grant competition but foundations have been active in this space since early 2000s — and I would venture to say that the situation with Internet freedom has only gotten only worse.
But that aside, what’s the broader strategy here? I didn’t sense one. All the Cold War-era rhetoric makes me think they are clinging to the old view “let’s make information available and see what happens,” which I think is a very passive (and often dangerous) way of going about it. I doubt they would be able to topple the Iranian regime with an iPhone app (Voice of America (corrected: it was not RFE/RL as I originally stated, my apologies) already tried something similar). It seems like the State Department hopes to solve its political issues via economics: mobile phones will create universal prosperity and that will somehow guarantee democracy and human rights everywhere. Maybe. Unless, of course, authoritarian governments develop even greater immunity to information, which will make the State Department’s job much harder.
P.S.: One final point that I forgot to make in my initial analysis is that the announcement that the State Department would now be giving grants in the field of new media doesn’t strike me as very important. The U.S. government has already been funding a lot of new media /Internet work: via embassies, USAID/Internews, quasi-government institutions like the National Endowment for Democracy, various desks at the State Department. I think it would be somewhat disingenuous to suggest that the U.S. government knows what to fund and how to fund it — philanthropy, especially on all things Internet, is very challenging and I am not sure that any government can develop the intellectual skills required for it in just a matter of weeks (this explains why we haven’t yet seen many stories of remarkable success here — unless, of course, you consider purely PR-driven efforts like the Bush-era Alliance of Youth Movements a success). I’d say that instead of spending millions of dollars on another series of grants, why don’t they ship the entire State Department — along with all embassy staff — to new media training courses? Otherwise, they will continue shooting in the dark.