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Leadership and Persuasion: Internet Freedom

Susan Crawford

Secretary Clinton's major address on internet freedom made the connection between humanity and technology. We've been waiting a long time for our political leaders to have the courage to express thoughts like this, to have a vision about the role of the internet in human history, and yesterday the day arrived.

The speech wasn't an isolated event, of course. Thanks to the flexibility and political savvy of a gifted Secretary and the prior experience and skills of her staff, the State Department has been rolling out great talking points and technology-focused actions from the beginning of the administration.

Yes, Secy. Clinton had to say that she was worried about anonymous speech, about IP piracy, and about cybersecurity. She had to point to existing committees and efforts, like the Global Internet Freedom Task Force and the Global Network Initiative, which won't necessarily be meaningful to ordinary Americans. She didn't announce a particular enforcement initiative. This is all about persuasion and words, not definitive actions.

Words are important, though, and you could hear US leadership in what the Secretary had to say.

  • "We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas."
  • "These actions [electronic barriers, censorship, privacy violations] contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights."
  • "In many cases, the internet, mobile phones, and other connection technologies can do for economic growth what the green revolution did for agriculture. You can now generate significant yields from very modest inputs."
  • "Unfettered access to search engine technology is so important."
  • "Countries that censor news and information must recognize that, from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech. . . . 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."
  • "The internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all other[ networks]."

This kind of rhetoric takes courage. We could be deferring to China's sovereign authority to manage its own ISPs in its very large and attractive market. We could be thinking wistfully of our own ability to wage economic war and differentiate the treatment of information online. We could be embarrassed about our own privacy failures and worry about the hypocrises that will continue to be revealed.

It's better, though, to say that we stand for "internet freedom" as a country. That's memorable, worthwhile, actionable, and human.

By Susan Crawford, Professor, Cardozo Law School in New York City
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Was Hillary representing "Internet freedom," or was she representing Google? Brett Glass  –  Jan 25, 2010 6:53 PM PST

After all, Google is actively and unapologetically involved in censorship in India. It has, in fact, deleted entire online discussions from its Orkut social networking system because people were criticizing a government official there. If Hillary really were anti-censorship, she would have criticized Google for continuing to participate in that censorship even as it said that it would stop doing so in China. But instead, she turned a blind eye to Google's censorship elsewhere, raising serious questions about Google's relationship with the current administration. To which it has contributed millions of Googlebucks (in the election campaign and the transition effort). And for which the author of the piece above — who likewise fails to mention Google's hypocrisy — worked until quite recently. Hmmm.

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