WASHINGTON — Restricting the Internet will not hold back surging popular demand for democratic reforms in the Middle East or elsewhere, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says, and the Obama administration is ready to help dissidents evade such restrictions to promote human rights and democracy in repressive states.
In a major policy address to be delivered Tuesday at George Washington University, Clinton challenges autocratic regimes in Iran, the broader Middle East and elsewhere to embrace online freedom and the demands of cyber dissidents or risk being toppled by tides of unrest. There is no "app" for ending online repression, Clinton says, but she also pledges U.S. support for ending curbs on Internet usage that have become common amid calls for change.
"There is no silver bullet in the struggle against Internet repression," she says in excerpts released Monday night by the State Department. "There's no 'app' for that. And accordingly, we are taking a comprehensive and innovative approach — one that matches our diplomacy with technology, secure distribution networks for tools, and direct support for those on the front lines."
A major element of that, officials say, will be to assist civic leaders, students and rights activists in overcoming government controls on the Internet to get their messages out. [See a slide show of 15 post-Cold War uprisings.]
Clinton's remarks, her second major address on the topic of Internet freedom since becoming America's top diplomat, come amid a groundswell of protests around the Middle East that have been abetted by online agitators using social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to organize anti-government demonstrations from Algeria to Yemen, Syria, Iran and Jordan. Two longtime autocratic Arab presidents, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, have been driven from power in the last month. [See photos of the Egyptian uprising.]
"History has shown us that repression often sows the seeds for revolution down the road," she says. "Those who clamp down on Internet freedom may be able to hold back the full impact of their people's yearnings for a while, but not forever."
To varying degrees, countries beset by calls for change have attempted to stifle dissent by shutting down specific social media websites or limiting or interrupting Internet service altogether. But, Clinton argues, governments that clamp down on opposition websites, activist bloggers and news outlets do so at their own risk.
"We are convinced that an open Internet fosters long-term peace, progress and prosperity," she says. "The reverse is also true."
The State Department has jumped into the fray over the course of the past week, launching Twitter feeds in both Arabic and Farsi to reach out to people throughout the Arab world and Iran, where anti-government protests were met with a severe police crackdown Monday. [See editorial cartoons about the Egyptian uprising.]
"Leaders worldwide have a choice to make," Clinton says. "They can let the Internet in their countries flourish, and take the risk that the freedoms it enables will lead to a greater demand for political rights. Or they can constrict the Internet, choke the freedoms it naturally sustains, and risk losing all the economic and social benefits that come from a networked society."
Despite the Obama administration's own problems with an unfettered Internet, most notably the release of hundreds of thousands of sensitive diplomatic documents by the WikiLeaks website, Clinton says that the U.S. is unwavering in its commitment to cyber freedom, even as it seeks to prosecute online criminals and terrorists. [See a roundup of political cartoons on Wikileaks.]
"Our allegiance to the rule of law does not dissipate in cyberspace, neither does our commitment to protecting civil liberties and human rights," she says. "There are times when these principles will raise tensions and pose challenges, but we do not have to choose among them. And we shouldn't. Together they comprise the foundation of a free and open Internet."