On Tuesday (February 15), Hillary Clinton made a speech about Internet freedom at George Washington University. Evgeny Morozov, currently a fellow at Stanford University and the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side, commented on the speech, as reported in yesterday’s Huffington News (February 17).
The speech, he said, was an effort to capitalize on the universal excitement about the role of social media in the recent events in the Middle East and to try to reconcile the inherent contradictions of aspiring to export Internet freedom abroad while limiting it at home, with the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security seeking more oversight over cyberspace.
Morozov said a number of favourable things about the speech and then went on.
The bad news is that Clinton’s speech is as important for the subjects that it has avoided. It’s these omissions that tell us far more about the progress (or lack thereof) in how the U.S. government thinks about a complex subject like Internet freedom.
Unfortunately, there was barely any mention of the role that America’s own companies play in suppressing Internet freedom. Presumably, it’s quite embarrassing for Hillary Clinton that Narus – an American company now owned by Boeing – supplied Egypt with technology that allowed it to spy on Internet users. Or that just two months ago the State Department gave an innovation award to another American company – Cisco – even though the latter provided some of the key ingredients for China’s draconian system of Web controls.
Then, there is the thorny issue of our growing dependence on companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google as the providers of digital infrastructure that makes cyber-activism possible. Clinton was right to acknowledge that the Internet is “the public space of the 21st century” – but today this space feels and looks more like a shopping mall than a community playground.
The striking impression one gets from watching the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia is that these revolts happened not because of Facebook, Twitter and Google – but in spite of them. While their services were widely used by activists on the ground, the parent companies have been extremely quiet. And for a good reason: they all have global business interests and eye expansion abroad. Being seen as the digital equivalents of the Voice of America is bound to create additional liabilities for them in important markets like Russia or China.
We shouldn’t expect these companies to always err on the side of protesters but we should nudge them to behave more responsibly. For example, it’s not very helpful for the U.S. government to provide activists with tools to access the Web anonymously if they can’t use services like Facebook using pseudonyms. Facebook’s tough stance on pseudonyms often leads to rather curious situations: in December, 2010, Facebook temporarily suspended the account of Russian jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, demanding that he present them with a scanned copy of his passport – perhaps, not an easy thing to email from a Siberian prison.
And yet the toughest unacknowledged challenge to the future of the “Internet freedom agenda” may come from within the U.S. government. While it’s wonderful that so many young activists can use the Web for protest, the reality is that in all too many cases they will be using it to fight against the very dictators that the U.S. has supported for decades. As such, Washington will often find itself in the rather unpleasant position of training Arab bloggers to oppose the local police forces that Washington itself has armed and trained.
One would need to be extremely naïve to believe that the U.S.-made social networks will always be mightier than the U.S.-made swords. At worst, the State Department may be feeding these youthful activists the false hopes that their grievances will take precedence over the grievances of the pro-U.S. dictators that Washington supports. Clearly, the right thing to do is not to stop supporting cyber-activists but to stop supporting their opponents.
The danger here is that Washington’s noble and idealistic push to promote Internet freedom may serve as yet another excuse not to re-examine and correct the deeply cynical realpolitik foundations of U.S. foreign policy.