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

In a speech calling for a global commitment to Internet freedom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walked a fine line between condemning what governments abroad do and what critics claim the US is doing globally.

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.