Dear Secretary Clinton,
One year ago, in a groundbreaking speech, you declared the "freedom to connect" to be a Fifth Freedom, as important to human liberty as the Four Freedoms Franklin D. Roosevelt championed 70 years ago this month. The Internet will be what we make of it, you said, and you challenged governments and companies alike to ensure that a person' s access to information and opinion does not depend on where she lives. At the time of your speech, Google was skirmishing with Chinese authorities over its ability to offer its search services uncensored. They were not the only company experiencing government-initiated interruptions of service. Turkey had blocked YouTube on and off since 2007. Iran had blocked Twitter just before its June 2009 presidential elections. And now Egypt has taken the extreme step of cutting off all Internet and telecommunications access in the country in the midst of pro-democracy protests against the Mubarak government.
As you rightly pointed out, "[t]his issue is about more than claiming the moral high ground. It really comes down to the trust between firms and their customers. Consumers everywhere want to have confidence that the Internet companies they rely on will provide comprehensive search results and act as responsible stewards of their own personal information. Firms that earn that confidence of those countries and basically provide that kind of service will prosper in the global marketplace." You challenged companies-particularly American companies-to lead the way: "censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere. And ... American companies need to make a principled stand. This needs to be part of our national brand."
One year later, however, there is no comprehensive policy in place to fulfill this inspiring vision.
Meanwhile, the past year has brought new and increasingly complex challenges to the vision of Internet freedom you articulated. Belarus and Hungary have adopted restrictive laws designed to impose on new media the same restrictions they have placed on traditional media. Around the globe, abusive anti-blasphemy laws-promoted under the guise of combating religious intolerance-are increasingly being used to justify censorship. In Russia, authorities have used anti-piracy laws to curb dissent, effectively shuttering a number of independent media and nongovernmental organizations. Government pressures, most recently in Indonesia which professes to be cracking down on online pornography, led Research In Motion (RIM) to filter search content, leaving Blackberry users largely in the dark about RIM' S decision-making process and implications for user privacy and security.
Here at home, WikiLeaks' publication of classified government information prompted Senator Joseph Lieberman to question Amazon.com' s hosting of Wikileaks' content. While there is understandable concern about the exposure of classified information, Senator Lieberman' s statements reflected a lack of concern for the negative impacts on freedom of expression and the precedent it would set for those governments that have aggressive Internet censorship and surveillance policies to silence dissent. Similarly, your warning that companies must be responsible has been interpreted by some as a retreat from the principles you outlined last year and, if left
unaddressed, could compromise the ability of the United States government to lead the world toward the vision of Internet freedom you articulated.
One year on, your defense of the Freedom to Connect inspires hope and points US policy in the right direction. There are several things you can do to bring that vision to life.
First, in the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosure, it is important to reaffirm the US commitment to Internet freedom. In particular, you should take the opportunity to clarify that US government concerns about WikiLeaks will not trump its interest in defending freedom of expression and will not be used to justify press restrictions, abusive use of criminal and civil discovery procedures against social media companies and their clients, or to expand criminal liability to recipients and publishers of information.
Second, we urge you to build on the meeting your deputies had with company officials last year by convening a high-level summit of CEOs in the Internet and communications technology sector and personally urging them to operationalize your vision. We welcomed your endorsement last year of the Global Network Initiative, of which our organizations are founding members, as a mechanism to promote real accountability and transparency. We ask that you continue to promote corporate membership in the Global Network Initiative as a way for companies to demonstrate their commitment to the principles of privacy and free expression, their willingness to be held accountable for upholding these principles in practice, and their desire to adopt responsible and transparent decision making policies. We also hope you will work with Congress to fashion requirements to ensure that companies take these steps.
Third, you can ensure greater alignment of US trade and investment policies with Internet freedom priorities by ensuring that trade and investment reports include information on Internet freedom restrictions. This could include ensuring that Foreign Service and commercial officers receive training on Internet freedom, and that the US government advises US companies abroad facing government demands that would limit or compromise their services.
Fourth, you should continue and expand programs to support netizens around the world, and improve access to and innovation in technology that will promote user safety and security. Your department has begun to make important investments in a variety of initiatives to promote Internet freedom, wisely recognizing that there are multiple challenges that require a variety of responses. We hope that these efforts will continue and will yield results as expeditiously as possible. The recently announced request for proposals holds the potential to carry this work forward, with the promise of $30 million in support for projects and services to advance the cause of Internet freedom. We urge you to make grants under this program expeditiously and to ensure that the bulk of the funds are used, as Congress intended, to support the development and deployment of technologies designed to help Internet users in closed societies gain free and safe access to the Internet. We also hope you will find a way to educate policymakers, civil society, and others about the effectiveness of those efforts.
The administration can also take other steps to assist netizens abroad. For example, the State Department could further work with the Treasury Department' s Office of Foreign Assets Control to identify and relax restrictions on valuable new technologies when they unnecessarily impede activists' ability to use them.
The bold vision you set out a year ago of a world with "one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all" continues to inspire. We urge you to do all you can to make that vision a reality. Thank you for your leadership on this important human rights issue.
Human Rights Watch
President and Chief Executive Officer
Human Rights First