Just over a year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a global commitment to Internet Freedom. Based on the universal human rights framework, Internet Freedom – or in Secretary Clinton’s words “the freedom to connect” — applies the freedoms of assembly, expression and association to cyberspace.
Today, as we look around at world events, this commitment is more important than ever. By preserving these rights in the digital era, we preserve both the promise and the possibility of the Internet as a platform for ideas, innovation, connection, and economic growth.
Against the backdrop of Egypt and the largest Internet shutdown of our time, there have been numerous calls to honor the freedom to connect, in particular to seek and share information over the internet.
In a very real way, the Internet has become the public sphere of the 21st century— in fact, it is now the town square for the entire world. The kind of peaceful civic activism we have recently seen in Tahrir Square or in Tunis occurs increasingly on the Internet in parallel and in coordination with rallies in the streets.
People around the world come together every day on the Internet to connect to one another, sample a universe of news and information, or make their voices heard. In this new environment, age old questions become more relevant than ever: how best to govern, administer justice, pursue prosperity, and create the conditions for long-term progress, both within and across borders.
If the choices we face today are familiar, the space in which we discuss and confront them is not. Indeed, in the minds of many people the Internet itself heightens tensions on any number of issues, including the balance between liberty and security, transparency and confidentiality, and the demands of freedom of expression when set against the need to foster harmony and tolerance.
First, too often liberty and security are seen as mutually exclusive. In reality, we must have both to have either. Put another way, we must have enough security to enable our freedoms but not so much as to endanger them.
Rule of law is central in maintaining the all-important balance between liberty and security. Our allegiance to it does not vanish in cyberspace, nor does our commitment to civil liberties. While the willingness of terrorists and criminals to use cyberspace to advance their aims complicates matters and poses a new challenge, it is our values that determine our own actions. It is true that some government evoke “security” as a justification for harsh crackdowns on Internet freedom, going so far as to arrest bloggers, pry into the peaceful activities of citizens, and limit or close off access to information. Ultimately, though, such actions fool no one: ideas may be silenced for a time but they never entirely disappear.
Second, we must simultaneously protect both transparency and confidentiality. Transparency is critical. We can and should give citizens information about their governments and open the doors to commerce historically closed off to most people. But confidentiality also matters and on occasion is needed to protect the ability of organizations and governments to carry out their missions and best serve the public interest.
Because they serve the public, governments must always meet a very high standard when invoking confidentiality. That said, in some circumstances governments do need a degree of confidentiality when dealing with matters such as public safety and national security. For example, it would be highly problematic to publish on the internet details of sensitive negotiations between countries on how to locate and dispose of nuclear materials. Similarly, confidentiality is required when making plans and reaching agreements to combat the violence of drug cartels.
Third, we must seek to protect free expression even as we work to promote tolerance and understanding. As in any town square, the Internet is home to every kind of speech: false, offensive, constructive and innovative. With an online population of more than 2 billion people that is rapidly growing, the varied nature of speech online will only proliferate.
In keeping with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right to freedom of expression. The challenge is to fulfill a commitment to freedom of expression online while also emphasizing the importance of harnessing the capacity of the Internet to advance tolerance and peace. From an American perspective, the best way to do this is to promote more speech, not limit it. As for offensive speech, it should be exposed, critiqued and challenged – but not suppressed. In the marketplace of ideas, those ideas with merit will become stronger and those without merit will in time fade away.
Internet freedom gives the entire planet the rare opportunity to tie together a human rights issue with our aspirations for mutual economic prosperity. Maintaining this freedom necessarily requires an open Internet platform, one that ensures that the Internet can remain an engine of ideas, innovation, and economic growth. Open markets for new products and services can in turn catalyze entrepreneurship, innovation, and investment. As international experience suggests, investment and innovation in the global Internet marketplace flow to those nations that seek to make openness the hallmark of their Internet policy.
Further progress requires a universal town square in which the Internet continues to flourish. As a country, we are confident that it is both possible and essential to protect and advance the principles of liberty and security; transparency and confidentiality; and free speech and tolerance. It is these very principles that comprise the foundation of a free and open Internet.