Clinton Denounces Internet Censorship, Says WikiLeaks Case Involves 'Theft'

By Fahmida Y. Rashid  |  Posted 2011-02-15

Clinton Denounces Internet Censorship, Says WikiLeaks Case Involves 'Theft'

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlined a new Internet freedom policy that will guarantee dissidents and human rights activists access to the "world's town square" while justifying recent United States actions on online security and privacy.

Clinton said the United States considered "freedom to connect" a foreign policy priority and outlined challenges of defending a "free and open Internet," in a speech at George Washington University on Feb. 15. A restricted Internet had economic repercussions as businesses had to think twice about operating in those areas, just as there were effects on what people felt comfortable saying or doing online, she said.

In her hour-long speech, Clinton named several countries known for censoring speech or restricting access to the Internet, including China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, Syria and Vietnam. The government "censors content and redirects search requests to error pages" in China and use social networking sites to obtain "identifying information about their own people in order to hunt them down" in Iran, she said. While she talked about the protesters in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt, she made no mention of the current demonstrations in Bahrain.

"The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace," she said.

Clinton also pledged $25 million in new grants to support "technologists and activists" fighting Internet repression to stay ahead of "repressive governments" who are "innovating their methods" of restricting online access. The agency has awarded more than $20 million over the past three years, she said.

"We are taking a venture-capital approach, supporting a portfolio of technologies, tools and training, and adapting as more users shift to mobile devices," she said. The technologies may include encryption services to hide what people are doing online, alternate methods to get online to bypass national censors and blocks, and technology to remotely wipe sensitive data from mobile devices in case activists are detained. Clinton declined to name specific technologies as there was "no silver bullet," she said.

She did not mention the Internet kill-switch bill currently under consideration in Congress.

Businesses investing in countries with aggressive censorship and surveillance policies run the risk of having their sites shut down without warning, hacked by the government and confidential data stolen, or staff arrested based on their online activity, she said. While there are obviously businesses willing to take the chance in countries like China, in the long term, repressive governments will find that a "segmented Internet" is not sustainable.

Clinton Denies U.S. Hypocrisy on WikiLeaks Case


Countries will not be able to maintain divisions that separate economic activity on the Internet from social, religious or political activity, Clinton said, referencing the recent demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt. "There isn't an economic Internet and a social Internet and a political Internet. There's just the Internet," she said.

Clinton said balancing security and liberty was critical in ensuring an open Internet. The qualities that make the Internet "a force for unprecedented progress" also makes it easy for wrong-doing, she said. The United States track and deter criminals and terrorists online to fight cyber-crime and work with other countries to fight online crime that crosses boundaries, she said. Governments that arrest bloggers, pry into their citizens' activities, and limit access to the Internet in the name of security are "taking the wrong path," she said.

Hours after the speech, the Justice Department appeared in a Virginia court to convince a judge to order Twitter to release account information to the US government about people connected with WikiLeaks.

It would be near impossible to speak about Internet freedom without addressing the diplomatic cables WikiLeaks posted online last November, so Clinton addressed it head-on. Clinton denied there was any hypocrisy in calling on governments to "defend and protect an open Internet" while denouncing WikiLeaks because the central issue was theft, not online communications.

"Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase," she said. "The fact that Wikileaks used the Internet is not the reason we criticized it," she said. She also denied the government intervened with any companies to sever ties with the site. Politicians may have spoken out, but that wasn't the same as the US government, she said.

The Obama administration will complete an international strategy for cyber-space later this year outlining in greater detail the rules of the online road that the United States wants to see in place, according to Clinton.

The State Department created a Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues to focus on cyber-security policies and facilitate cooperating within the department and across other agencies, Clinton said. She named Christopher Painter, a former senior director for cyber-security at the National Security Council, to head the office.

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