Free Speech in the Digital Age

USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, Los Angeles, CA

Director of the USC Annenburg Center, Geoffrey Cowan (left), with Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, October 24, 2011 (State Department Photo)

Director of the USC Annenberg Center, Geoffrey Cowan (left), with Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, October 24, 2011 (State Department Photo)

Thank you so much, Geoff, for inviting me. And I want to take a minute to honor you for everything you’ve done to build the Annenberg Center and now Sunnylands as a leading venue for thought and discussion about some of the most critical issues of our times. I am eager to have this chance to talk with journalists, aspiring journalists and public policy thinkers about Internet freedom, which I believe is the seminal free-speech issue of our generation.

As most of you know, our section of the State Department, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, is charged with helping to maintain the Internet as an open space for the free expression of all people. My boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made Internet freedom a foreign policy priority, and Congress has given us $70 million to fund technology, training and policy advocacy for Internet freedom around the world. We’ve funded a wide range of programs and trainings aimed at keeping activists in the most repressive environments safe, including a number of Syrians who tell us they are using what they learned in the current struggle for political freedom.

You may have read about the “Panic Button” developed by one of our grantees. This now comes in both Nokia and Android versions and they have encrypted voice and SMS capabilities. These were developed in response to what we heard from democracy and human rights activists on the front lines. If they’re being arrested, they can push a button that sends text messages to people to let them know they’re in trouble. And it wipes the contacts in their phone, which we’ve been told has already proven useful.

We’re making progress. But it’s a struggle. And before we open the discussion, I want to outline three trends that are of deep concern to us.

The first, not a new one of course, is confronting the increasing attempts by some governments to control their citizens’ peaceful online activities. Under international human rights law, people have the right to express themselves, and I quote, “through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Yet interference from states continues in endlessly nefarious and inventive forms. The Committee to Protect Journalists has done an excellent job tracking these tactics, from illicit surveillance and hacking, to offline intimidation of bloggers, to total Internet shutdown.

The Obama administration has staked out a principled stand by arguing that the rights to free expression, assembly and association apply to online activity just as they do to offline activity. Although it may be more difficult to enforce certain rights in the Digital Age, as authors, artists and inventors are discovering. But the principles are the same. You don’t break into a movie theater and steal the film reels, and you don’t have the right to steal movies online, either.

Second, we are seeing a growing number of repressive regimes get hold of the latest, greatest Western technologies and use them to spy on their own citizens for the purpose of quashing peaceful political dissent or even information that would allow citizens to know what is happening in their communities. Journalists, bloggers and activists are of course primary targets. I’m sure many of you saw the reports about rebels overrunning Col. Qaddafi’s Internet surveillance boiler room in Tripoli and finding it stuffed with Western technology. It’s a complex story, but one I hope the media will follow and explore in depth.

There are no easy solutions, because of course the United States wants people in every country to have access to the newest connection technologies, including people in repressive places. And we want to allow our tech industry a free reign for innovation, avoiding onerous regulations as much as we can. At the same time, the use of such technologies by repressive governments to suppress fundamental rights and freedoms is an ongoing concern. At the State Department, we are monitoring this issue very closely. And, we are urging companies to work together, and with like-minded governments and NGOs, to figure out ways to minimize such misuse. Some companies are already doing this by designing innovative fixes that help their products protect users. In some cases, their young customers are the Vaclev Havels and the Nelson Mandelas of the next generation.

And we need to make this dialogue real. Because the third disturbing trend – which I would argue has not received the attention that it merits – is the growing efforts to give countries more control over how the Internet is governed, to cut companies and civil society out of the conversation on shaping the Internet’s future.

Last month in New York the governments of China and Russia, with support from others, came to the UN to suggest the need for an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security.” Were such a code to be enacted, it would almost inevitably erode media freedoms. And it would shift cyberspace away from being people-driven to a system dominated by centralized government control. Not a good idea.

As I said at the outset, I’ve come here for an exchange of views. And so I look forward to a conversation about how together we can defend freedom on these tough issues that are now playing out in some of the hardest places in our world. Thank you.

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