Conversations With America: The State Department’s Internet Freedom Strategy
Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Philip J. Crowley
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Leslie Harris, President and CEO for the Center for Democracy and Technology
MR. CROWLEY: Hello and welcome to the Department of State in Washington, DC. I’m P.J. Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs. And thank you for joining us for another version of Conversations With America, where we talk about some of the most significant diplomatic and development and international issues of the day.
Earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an important speech on internet freedom. And here to join us today we have Mike Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Welcome.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Pleasure to be here.
MR. CROWLEY: And we have Leslie Harris, the president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology. Welcome.
MS. HARRIS: That’s right. Thank you.
MR. CROWLEY: So, I should start off by just saying what do we mean by internet freedom, and why is it important in light of recent events, particularly in Egypt?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, the subject of internet freedom for us is about an open media, open internet. We put ourselves on the side of free speech, free expression, free assembly, free association. And in today’s world, the new means of electronic communications give people a greater ability to talk among themselves within a country and to speak to the world. So we’re putting our money behind, and our diplomatic power behind, the notion that a free, open, neutral internet across borders in the world’s interest.
MR. CROWLEY: Unless they – obviously, what we see with what happened in Egypt is both the opportunity that technology represents but also the danger in terms of how that technology can be employed by states as well as individuals.
MS. HARRIS: So, certainly, there’s that danger from states. But on balance, if we’re able to build out a model of the internet that supports openness, that supports innovation, that supports freedom, we’re building the underpinnings of not just democracy but economic growth and personal empowerment around the world. So I don’t think that countries ought to be afraid of the internet, or individuals afraid of the internet, because either – of its potential to be a double-edged sword or the fact that, once you open up a medium, there’s good things that happen and bad things. And we’ve got to move forward on this. I think the United States , Western Europe, countries who have adopted an internet that is basically open for innovation and for business have been transformed and done well. The challenge now is that we have counter-models open for the economic growth and not open for political discussion, personal empowerment, and democracy-building. I think the role for the United States and, frankly, the role for other democracies who have embraced the internet is to make sure that, as the next three billion people come online, that at the end of the day it’s our vision of the internet that we prevails.
MR. CROWLEY: Michael, probably the – picking up on what has happened here with a transformation in Tunisia, in Egypt, how do you interpret the role that the internet or social media have played in the events that we’ve seen over the past few weeks?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: A couple of things. One is, in a place like Egypt or Tunisia, the governments had lessened the space for people to organize, to operate, to communicate, to form organizations and have public meetings. So the internet became the town square, the place that they could – people could actually work with one another, communicate, and begin to build a social movement. What we saw in both places is that people – young people, in particular – view the communications via the internet, by mobile phones, as a way to basically organize and form an alternative set of power.
MR. CROWLEY: And we’ve seen that governments have recognized the potential and the power that these tools represent. Now they – in the case of Egypt, they actually literally were able to shut down the entire internet, but it didn’t stop the protests.
ASSISTANT SECRETRY POSNER: Yeah, because this is ultimately about people; it’s not just about technology. People in these societies were – have been and are frustrated by years of not being – having democratic societies, having the ability to participate in their countries’ political life. So they were determined to change. The technology gave them tools to make that process happen faster. And it’s interesting; when the Government of Egypt said we’re going to shut down the internet, they only could do it for a few days because the internet is now an essential tool of commerce, of – it’s essential for every aspect of a modern society. You can’t live without it. And so they essentially had, at some point, to say we’ve got to put it up and running or our whole country’s going to fall apart.
MS. HARRIS: I think that’s really right. There’s this concern about shutting down the internet. And what happened in Egypt was absolutely unprecedented, and I’m not sure that people understand that. There’s enormous blocking of content going on in non-democratic countries. We’ve had sort of sporadic blocking of Facebook or Twitter in – during the Green Revolution in Iran. We’ve had some activities in – I continue to call it Burma – but we have –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Me too. (Laughter.)
MS. HARRIS: But we have not had this sort of disappearing of the Egyptian country code off of what’s essentially a highly interconnected system. At the end of the day, it was extraordinarily self-defeating, because it just added more flames to the fire of what was going on in terms of the democracy groups, and it was too late. It was really fascinating, because – the Assistant Secretary is correct – it is about people, and the people had already gotten themselves organized.
But it also just destroyed the economy for three days, and I think there’s a lot of lessons that need to be looked at coming out of that Egyptian experience, and I think one question is whether or not the non-free countries will look at that as a solution or they will be more reluctant. And I don’t know the answer to that.
MR. CROWLEY: What was the situation in Egypt prior to January 25? How much penetration had social media and the internet occurred in Egypt?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, we – I was there, actually, a couple of times in 2010 early in the year in January and then in October. And there – we saw throughout the year a growing number of bloggers who were out there raising a range of concerns about torture, about a lot of subjects that had been taboo. The government was cracking down on some of them. I met one guy who had been arrested several times precisely because he was a blogger and people were paying attention. So you could see that the energy was growing around the use of these new technologies to get information out, and the government didn’t quite know how to respond other than to crack down on individuals.
But at a certain point, they lost control of that and many more people started to blog, and these organizations like the April 6 movement began to use the internet as a tool to communicate not only with a small group, but with an increasingly broad group of Egyptian society.
MS. HARRIS: Yes, it’s a fascinating example, because Egypt had not really moved to a highly censored, controlled internet like some countries. They controlled what was happening by prosecutions at the top level, going after bloggers. But people were very discouraged. One of my colleagues was there a couple of weeks before doing some training on internet policy, because ultimately, as these countries change – and I hope we get some opportunity as – with the new Egypt – you have to put the policies in place that support freedom. And they were very dispirited and did not believe that they really had that much power, not withstanding that they all had access to the internet. So to see that transformation happen in a matter of weeks, I think, was extraordinary.
MR. CROWLEY: Now, what should some of those policies be?
MS. HARRIS: Well, policy on the internet starts at a layer that most of us don’t understand and don’t care to. It starts at a standards level, it goes to what rules do we impose on internet service providers, are we going to make them liable for the content that comes over their networks? We don’t do that in the United States. We have a lot of voluntary compliance, voluntary good acting. The same at the applications level; we have strong protections for intermediaries.
We – in this country, we don’t license at the various levels. Other countries do, but you have licensing schemes that turn the entities into basically arms of the government – big, big problem with how Egypt is set up and how those companies had to respond given how they are licensed in that country.
So all the way up to the questions of basic free speech, criminal libel, how much free speech you have – you have to look at these policies, you have to look at the surveillance policies, the surveillance technology mandates. We’re struggling with a lot of the same questions here, and we’ve had hearings in the United States’ Congress this week on some of the same questions.
We have to be very careful, because as Secretary Clinton said in her speech, we do have these big questions – security, freedom, copyright ownership, free flow of information, confidentiality. But now that the United States is out there as much as it is on internet freedom, we have an additional obligation when we’re adopting our own policies that may work here, because we are in a rule-of-law country, to understand what the broader implications could be. And as a country like Egypt, I hope starts afresh, we need to be constantly the role model for struggling with these difficult concerns and coming down, as the Secretary said, on the side of openness.
MR. CROWLEY: Now, there are tensions here. Just as ordinary people use social media to communicate, so do bad actors, terrorists, and so forth. How do we try to balance off the openness, the – having the internet as a true public square, and yet provide sufficient oversight so the government can understand what is being done and try to perhaps stop the internet from being used as a destructive force, even as you encourage it to be used as an empowering force?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think we have to go back to our first principles. We believe in free speech, but we have limits on speech. You can’t yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. We have concerns about speech that immediately incites violence. So we are – we have rules about pornography and keeping pornography out of the public domain for children, for example. We have to be very mindful that this is – we’ve sort of amplified some of those discussions because of the power of this medium.
But it’s the same discussion. We need to be aware of the challenges, and that – one of the things, I think, Secretary Clinton did this week was to say we stand on the side of openness, but we’re doing this with our eyes open, and we are, in fact, going to be responsible in the way we deal with national security issues, with law enforcement. We’re not going to pretend those things don’t exist, but we’re going to always lean on the side of as much openness as possible and trying to have a neutral venue, a forum, a platform where people can communicate openly. For political purposes, for innovation, for education, for trade, we’re going to try to keep the platform open and neutral.
MS. HARRIS: And we’re not there yet. We are a beacon and we’re not there yet. Obviously, the answer to some of these bad actor questions is we don’t disappear law enforcement out of the equation when we move to the internet.
But in the United States, we’re operating on laws about the government’s access to information online that never – that did not anticipate the environment we’re in now. So if you store something on your computer or in your desk, you have Fourth Amendment protections. For the most part, all that we’re storing online is subject to very low legal standards. So we need to take some actions here to raise the bar, even when we’re talking about these challenges, or we will find ourselves, not in a position to be able to go to the rest of the world and tell them that we have the answers.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: One of the things, P.J., last year, Secretary gave a speech on the same subject at the Newseum about a year ago. And it was sort of a clarion call. It was saying this is a big subject, we’re going to be involved, we’re going to play a leadership role.
The speech this week was a more reflective speech saying, okay, we’ve got a year evaluation of this and we recognize that there are all these challenges, these contradictions, if you will. And we’re going to take those things seriously, but we’re going to redouble our efforts to be leaders on this notion of an open internet. So I think it’s an important speech both because it is such a clear call to leadership for us, but at the same time it’s a recognition of the challenges we face.
MR. CROWLEY: No, but is this a case – and how do you balance legitimate, sovereign interests a state might have versus coming up with a standard that is more global? Who will ultimately set the rules of the road?
MS. HARRIS: This is, I think, the biggest challenge for the internet going forward. For the first period of time, it was principally an American creation and it was easier to figure that out. We’re now in an environment, we’ve got – I don’t remember the figures exactly – 2 billion online and perhaps 3 billion to go, and therefore, the challenge is completely different. We operate in an environment where when you put data in the cloud, it could actually be in – anywhere in the world.
So our traditional questions of jurisdiction that the Assistant Secretary and I learned in law school a long time ago – (laughter) – absolutely don’t fit this environment. Questions of which government should have access to the information, which privacy law ought to apply, are enormous challenges. And we have to figure out some kind of global governance bodies that don’t force us into a race to the bottom. There are some calls around the world for governance bodies, like the UN, where we would be negotiating what works on the internet or what ought to work with countries who have very, very different values.
I’m hoping that in the first instance, that we can reach agreement with other democratic governments on what we believe the right policy principles are, so that we can start demonstrating the way that the Internet should be governed cross borders. But the questions of who should manage the internet in a global environment is the thorniest andthe biggest challenge. I know from my organization, we’ve spent 17 years on the 1 and 2.0 versions of this governance question, and now we have to confront this 3.0 question
MR. CROWLEY: I know we’ll come back to that issue as we take some questions from our viewers.
MS. HARRIS: Yes, sure.
MR. CROWLEY: But the Secretary in her speech did start and focus on Egypt, but she also mentioned a number of other countries where perhaps they haven’t hit the kill switch entirely, but they certainly, in the case of a China or a Vietnam or a Burma or others, are restricting access to the internet and access to information. What’s been our experience in those countries?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, I think one experience is that we have to – there’s not a one size fits all response to this. Different countries do this in different ways. The Chinese, for example, employ a number of people monitoring what’s out there and taking it down. In the last few days, we’ve seen the word Egypt and the words Hillary Clinton have disappeared from the internet in Egypt – in China. And so that takes a lot of doing in a country with a billion, three hundred million people. I don’t think that’s sustainable.
But we have to be, I think, creative, innovative. We’ve got to use technology, and we’ve got to be responsive to people who are trying in each of these countries to figure out both have to navigate around the restrictions on content and at the same time protect their own personal privacy. What we’ve seen in a lot of countries is that countries – China, again, would be an example, there are many more – governments use technology, use the internet, to put out false information, to dissemble information and also to go after people by taking their own personal information and using it for their own security purposes.
MR. CROWLEY: Now, China reacted to the Secretary’s speech relatively negatively. By the same token, don’t they have a growing number of bloggers who are – and to what extent are they able to find a way to stay connected despite the government’s efforts?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: History is on our side here. This is – in the long term, we’re betting on openness, and we’re betting on a neutral platform where lots of stuff is out there. Some of it we’re going to like; some of it we’re not going to like. But we’re believing that more free speech, more association is in our national interest and the world’s national interest. The Chinese are betting that they can have an internet that deals with economy and things that they’re prepared to talk about, but they’re not going to have that more robust, open discussion. I think that they can’t sustain that.
MR. CROWLEY: Just by the nature of the name of your organization, the Center for Democracy and Technology, can technology make societies more democratic in the long run?
MS. HARRIS: Well, I agree with the Secretary. People make countries more democratic in the long run. . Assuming more and people come online and participate, it is very, very difficult to control —- I agree with the assistant secretary. I’m betting on the side of the people, when we’re talking about – I think the numbers are staggering about how many blogs, micro blogs, et cetera exist, staggering numbers. There is no way that technology is going to defeat that over the long run.
The challenge for the United States and for free countries is that we have now these two models of the internet. We have the Chinese model that says we can have economic growth and prosperity because of this new technology and somehow put the political situation aside, and then we have our system. We ought to be using trade, diplomacy, aid all around the world, all the tools that are at our disposal, to make sure that it’s our vision and not the Chinese one that prevails.
MR. CROWLEY: And what do we do in terms of providing support to try to keep people – ensure they have access to the – to these technologies, and, if necessary, try to defeat some of the walls that other countries put up.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, Congress has generously appropriated funds. We’ve spent about $20 million to date. We have a $30 million appropriation. We’re now getting the money out. And what we’re looking at is really three things: trying to circumvent the controls that the Chinese and others put on content, and the second phase is to try to protect – use technology and smart thinking to protect users and protect their privacy and protect their ability to operate, and the third thing is to work with activists and do training and to work country by country, really figuring out what’s the people part of this, how do we figure out who are the prime users, how do we get the right kind of information into their hands, how do we work with them so that they’re effective in the use of this technology in close societies.
We’ve got a lot of places in the world where people simply don’t even know what technology is available to them, and they don’t know what the risks are. We have to be out there in a very thoughtful and smart way, trying to figure out how to help them.
MR. CROWLEY: And what’s the balance, say, a country in Africa, where if you can find a way to connect somebody with a cell phone, to the internet, access to information, that has – one set of circumstances. But then, of course, you have a country like Iran, where if you are seen as helping these groups, actually, in some cases, you can put them in greater danger. How do we achieve both of those objectives?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, it’s not just up to us to figure out how to connect the world. There is a, clearly, fast-moving technological revolution going on, both with the internet and with cell phones. A lot of countries that you mentioned, in Africa and elsewhere, people communicate by mobile phones. So the more that happens, it gives us more of a platform. We then have to figure out within the context of what we can do, how do we make sure that those platforms are safe, free, and effective.
MR. CROWLEY: And then from an NGO standpoint, obviously, government assistance can come with some strings sometimes.
MS. HARRIS: It’s why we haven’t applied* – (laughter) – because we do advocate and we do disagree with our own government. It does come with strings and I think the question – my own board had —we discussed it quite seriously – is independence, not being perceived as being part of the United States Government. From an NGO perspective, having this much money available for this work is an extraordinary thing. It’s a gift – happens to be gift we can’t take. But the NGOs overseas have to figure out for themselves the risk-benefit analysis associated with direct assistance or assistance through NGOs that might be direct recipients.
MR. CROWLEY: And to what extent – I mean, it may vary by country by country and region by region, where in some cases there can be market – generally market forces that will propel this forward and obviously then dealing with the autocratic countries that are actively trying to diminish or control access.
MS. HARRIS: So it is different in different countries. I believe in this technology. We’re the Center for Democracy and Technology, but our motto is innovation, freedom and openness. And so opening – the market forces and opening these societies to the technologies has to go hand-in-hand with the forces of training people how to use them, how to protect themselves. And from my perspective, making sure that people understand what I’m calling rule of law on the internet, which starts with traditional rule of law and then goes to these policy levels that start, as I said, way down in standards, bodies all the way up, layer by layer, to the ISPs, to the applications like Facebook, like Twitter, like Google, to the content providers who ride on top of them, to the individuals who ride on top of that.
Getting the policies right are complex, and it’s not the easiest part of – it’s much easier to sort of talk about circumvention technology, which I believe in strongly. But if what we’re going to do is build democratic internets country by country, we’ve got to start getting people in place who are advocates for all of these laws, policies, technological freedom. They all go hand in hand.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I would say, P.J., one of the things that’s great about Leslie’s organization, the Center for Democracy and Technology, is that they do mix the policy and the technical. We’ve got a world of tech savvy people who kind of do their own thing, and then we’ve got policy people, and they don’t connect as much as they need to. We need advocacy-smart, policy-driven organizations that help push us and other governments to do the right thing.
MS. HARRIS: Well, thanks, Michael.
MR. CROWLEY: I want to bring in our audience and some questions that have been submitted to us. I want to go back to this issue of regulation, and if there’s a need for some kind of regulation, who does that? Roger in Florida writes: I’ve read in some news articles that the United Nations wants to regulate or manage the internet. How is the U.S. Government addressing this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We have, I think, a range of anxieties about throwing this issue and many others into the United Nations. We believe in the United Nations; it has a lot of important roles to play. But we have great trepidation that if this became a UN-sponsored initiative, all of the most – all of the governments that have the greatest interest in regulating and controlling content and protecting against dissident speech in their own countries would be very loud voices. So I think we’re looking for alternatives that provide some form of governance but in a broader sense, without the race to the bottom.
MS. HARRIS: Yeah, my anxiety at least as high as the State Department’s on this front. (Laughter.) We’ve done some experiments. ICANN–is one of these experiments in governance essentially a multi-stakeholder body that is not controlled by any government, that run the names and numbering system, the domains. It’s been very, very messy. We’re not – nobody’s comfortable yet with that model. But when we look at the model of turning this over to the United Nations – and specifically here it would be the ITU – we can’t see a good result coming out of that.
And so I think we’re looking for an answer that doesn’t pick a winner. Even our standards bodies that I’ve been talking about were stood up privately by stakeholders; we’re going to have to do a mix of governance solutions public and private;encouraging countries to regulate where it’s appropriate for them to do so in ways that don’t interfere with the free flow of data. I mean, we’ve got countries that are tariffing bits in a way that is difficult just to get the data to flow.
And then we should stand up multi-stakeholder bodies around specific questions – I’m part of the Global Network Initiative, which is an entity for companies to come together with NGOs to talk about their social responsibility, I would like to grow that, like to see more companies participate. But conceptually, it is is not a really a good place for governments to try to get involved. Proposals to do so have not worked very well. And okay, let’s experiment with a , self-governing bodies, government regulation and multistakeholder initiatives, and try to get that mix right.
MR. CROWLEY: But is there a role for the private sector here? I know the State Department, we’ve had some informal conversations bringing business leaders to a country like Syria and said, look, if you actually want to attract significant foreign investment, you want companies to come here and invest here, they’re going to have to have minimum standards to be able to operate. And obviously, one of those would be open connections to the internet because this is how we do business.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah, I would – we had last year a meeting of about 20 big American companies – Bob Hormats, our Under Secretary for Economic Affairs; Maria Otero, who is the global Under Secretary – and we talked to them about a kind of common platform for those companies to come together on issues of internet freedom and privacy. The Global Network Initiative right now has only three of those companies: Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. They’ve been leaders in this. There are a number of other companies that we all know and think of in this space that ought to be part of that initiative and ought to be part of an effort to really figure out the corporate – the private side of this. I think there is an important role for the private sector.
MR. CROWLEY: I want to bring in another question. Maya (ph) W. in the U.S. writes: How can we ensure that the internet will not be shut down again? I was in Egypt during the revolution, and with no internet access, it made things pretty hard.
MS. HARRIS: I think probably Egypt will not shut down its internet again. And I think it’s going to be very, very important early on to get the lessons that came out of that, the lessons for the companies that participated, who had dozens if not hundreds of employees on the ground and understand the choices they made and why. We’re going to look at how the internet is architected. It was amazing in Egypt. There really was a central place you could go and pull a switch. Can’t happen in the United States. We have just too many points coming in and out.
But we have to reach some kind of global agreement about what you don’t do. There have been discussions in the United States about kill switches for the internet for cyber security, and I hope that Egypt is a sobering example in our own debates here. But to guarantee that an Internet shutdown doesn’t happen again is to get an agreement among countries that some actions are unacceptable, whether that’s through high-level norm setting, treaties, I don’t have the answer to that. But a lot more than human rights was damaged by the shutdown. And I think the Egyptians did not begin to understand that.
MR. CROWLEY: Mahmoud (ph) in Bahrain writes that Bahrain is gradually becoming a certified enemy of the internet with wide censorship described as – disguised as protecting citizens from the peril of pornography while the actual sites blocked are any opposition voice during the pro-democracy protests which are just going – still going on as we speak. Seven people have been killed by security forces. The internet has been throttled, making it almost unusable with several black spots, especially in demonstration locations.
How can – what kind of guidance do we give a government like Bahrain? Obviously, they’ve watched carefully to see what’s happened in Tunisia, what’s happening in Egypt, what’s happening in their neighborhood. How would we guide them?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think the guidance has to be the same to everybody. We have to have a universal standard. And the standard is we favor an open internet, an open platform. There are a range of issues country-specific. As Secretary Clinton said yesterday about Bahrain, we’re urging the government to respond peacefully. We’ve very concerned about the violence. And we are dealing with those issues, again, involving protest, but with respect to the internet in Bahrain, in China, in Egypt, in the United States, we believe in an open internet, we believe in a neutral platform, and I think we have to – that has to be principle that guides everything we do.
MS. HARRIS: I agree completely, and I think Bahrain, which has got a more modern economy than many of the other countries in the Middle East, is doing itself economic damage as well as human rights damage. But they’re going to learn, as Egypt learned, that once people are organized, it’s about people. And the throttling of the internet now is too late. And they will learn that lesson, I hope, we just have to keep advocating for what we know is right, which is openness. And once you have openness, you have freedom and you have economic innovation.
MR. CROWLEY: Molly G. (ph) in Washington, D.C. writes: How is the United States Government advancing internet freedom in China? Can it be achieved worldwide?
Now, on China, obviously, you have one of the most economically dynamic countries in the world. And yet, obviously, one that does make certain words disappear when it chooses, including Tiananmen Square. There’s obviously tension there, and it goes back to what you were saying earlier about the different bets that we’re making. But how do we know that China is not right?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We are doing – we have a relationship with China that includes a range of interests. We have strong economic interests, we have security interests, the human rights issue as well. I think the internet issues and the internet freedom issues transcend all of those interests. And we will continue to. We have – Ambassador Huntsman there has made this an issue that he has pushed out on. He’s met with bloggers. He’s used the internet himself to communicate internally within Chinese and Mandarin – fluent Mandarin speaker. I think our – we will continue to do whatever we can within the constraints of that society to push for more openness. There are a lot of very innovative Chinese activists – internet activists, bloggers – who are determined to get the word out. And they will do – they’re going to be creative, and we’re going to be enthusiastic about their creativity.
MR. CROWLEY: And is there a tipping point here where, as you bring more billions online, eventually, a government and its firewalls – the great firewall becomes overwhelmed?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I’m not a technical expert, but it seems to me we’re getting to the level – there are so – the numbers are so great – 500, 600 million internet users, many more cell phones. There’s a point at which – even a very big economy like the Chinese willing to invest a lot of money in this – there’s a point where you just can’t sustain that – the kind of control that they’re looking for. And we can do things diplomatically. We raise these issues in our human rights dialogues and our strategic dialogues.
But I think we’re really looking at a Chinese population, particularly young people, who are using the internet all the time. They’re using it for entertainment, they’re using it for – to learn things about – for their schoolwork, they’re using it also because they want a broader sense both of what’s going on in the world, and they want to talk about political and social events in China. I think inescapably, that’s the direction it’s going to go.
MS. HARRIS: I think that’s right. The firewall blocks what comes into the country, and more and more people in the country using the Interenet will not affect whether they have a firewall against the data coming in. What will start to get overwhelmed is the internal dialogue that’s going on among the Chinese, the millions of blogs, and in some ways, that’s even more important The people who are blogging are , as Michael said, sophisticated. They’ve been using circumvention technology and understand where to go to find blocked sites that are mirrored elsewhere. And they’re going to lead that conversation. And in some ways, they’ve already tunneled through the rabbit hole and they’re not blocked in, and they’re speaking to everybody else. And ultimately, it’s people in China using technology that will lead to change. I think that the China model is not sustainable.
MR. POSNER: One of the things we saw that was very interesting when the Nobel Prize was given to Liu Xiaobo, the democracy human rights activist last year, obviously the Chinese Government was not – wanted to block and control any discussion of that. Many, many Chinese bloggers made it their business to get that word out. It became sort of a cat-and-mouse game, but there clearly were many, many thousands of people who decided this is something that the Chinese people want to know about. And in fact, they do. There’s a great interest. How did the Nobel Prize committee decide that Liu Xiaobo is the guy who got the award? So there’s something going on within China that we really need to be watching again. It’s not – it’s for us to reinforce and support a genuine Chinese desire for openness and freedom.
And – I mean, we think about someone perhaps sitting at a computer, but with a cell phone, becomes one of the most powerful weapons there is in the world.
MS. HARRIS: Yes, although, we should not pretend that somehow having a cell phone makes you less detectable to the authorities. Phone technology, even beginning in our country, has always had greater surveillance capabilities, data collection capabilities. And some of the kinds of tools that we’ve developed for the internet have not necessarily yet migrated to the mobile environment
MR. CROWLEY: And back to Egypt. I mean, they also – as they shut down the internet, they also were making it more difficult for people to use cell phones.
MR. POSNER: Right. And one of the things, again, on the negative side, one of the things we worry about is not only is there surveillance – demonstrators picked up, they grabbed their cell phone and they get the list of contacts.
So one of the things we’re trying to do, and we’re working with some really innovative technology experts, is to try to figure out what are some of the safeguards and things that you can teach and get out there to make sure that people protect themselves in this wired world where people have lots of information that they’re carrying around with them.
MS. HARRIS: And this is where companies come in as well. Routinely companies hold onto the SMS text, not sure why since – very few people are selling texting by the number anymore. It’s very important for companies to be transparent when the government isn’t. So when people get cell phones, they really need to understand what the surveillance capabilities are, what the obligations are to turn over information. And so that’s part of corporate responsibility. Unfortunately, with cell phones, the same way that it’s hard to even get a privacy notice to somebody, it’s a harder place to get that transparency than on the web. But these are the things that companies have to think about when they’re going into these kinds of markets.
MR. CROWLEY: But a company that wants to go into a vast market like China, the temptation will be there to make compromises.
MS. HARRIS: Well, the temptation will be there, and in some cases the legal obligation. What we ask companies to do is to seriously assess the human rights risk before they go in to a country, to think about whether the products and services that they’re providing might need to be different, whether their data practices need to be different, whether their transparency need to be different, and whether their internal processes need to be different .When the government comes calling and you have a single employee – Chinese national in China, an Iranian – what’s the backup plan?
It doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to come out right in every case. We can’t ask the companies to somehow fix what’s wrong with these countries. But we can ask them to make best efforts and for this to be something that’s integrated into the way they do business. That’s what GNI is. It’s not telling companies that they have to always defy the government, because there’s some situations where you can’t. And eventually, the Vodafone story will be told, and we’ll be able to assess what they did or didn’t do in Egypt. There is a lot of learning that comes from these experiences.
MR. CROWLEY: And that’s a case where a company was kind of forced to become –
MS. HARRIS: Absolutely.
MR. CROWLEY: — complicit in the sending of messages that actually contributed to some of the violence there.
MS. HARRIS: Right.
MR. POSNER: This is all part of – we live in – the world’s changing so fast, the technology’s a piece of it. The globalized economy’s a piece of it. And we have to find – we have to create rules of the road for this new – and part of its corporate, part of its government, part of its citizens. But it’s happening so quickly that I think we can’t assume that even the conversation we’re having today is going to be relevant two years from now or three years from now. We have to act – we have to act prudently and smart. That’s sort of what the Secretary was saying – let’s get out ahead of these issues, recognize the power and positive nature of these new technologies as a force for human rights and democracy and innovation, et cetera, commerce, but let’s also be smart about how we do it and try to figure out what those rules can be.
MR. CROWLEY: Perhaps a final question: What lessons do you draw so far from the incredible dynamic that’s happening in the Middle East today?
MR. POSNER: Well, this was a – again, my first lesson is there are a lot of people that have a lot of courage and they have a real desire for – to live in free and open societies, and that drives everything. And these new technologies provides some tools to them that didn’t exist five or 10 years ago and that’s hastening the process of change.
MR. CROWLEY: Okay*, what –
MS. HARRIS: So I agree absolutely. And the third point is that these new technologies are also giving them a glimpse of how other people live in a way that further fuels those desires for a freer life.
MR. CROWLEY: On that note, thank you very much for joining us for another session of Conversations with America. I’d like to thank Mike and Leslie for sharing their work and their knowledge with us, and thank you all for joining us.
MS. HARRIS: Thank you.
MR. CROWLEY: And we look forward to seeing you again for a future Conversation with America.