Opportunities and Challenges of the Digital Age

Nizhny Novgorod State University, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia

Assistant Secretary of State Michael H. Posner at Nizhny Novgorod State University, October 13, 2011 (State Department Photo)

Assistant Secretary of State Michael H. Posner at Nizhny Novgorod State University, October 13, 2011 (State Department Photo)

Thank you, Dean Kolobov, and thank you, faculty and students of Nizhny Novgorod State University, for your gracious welcome. I’m delighted to have the chance to visit Nizhny Novgorod because of this city’s rich past and what promises to be an exciting future. Your city was a trade and industrial center in Tsarist times, a hub of Soviet-era research, and now you are at the cutting edge of Russian high-tech. And here and in many other places around the world, it is young people who are the engines of innovation and change, in technology, in the economy, and in civil and political life.

At an ever faster pace, transformative new technologies are connecting people within their own communities and countries and clear across the globe. These technologies are profoundly affecting every sphere of endeavor, including the content and conduct of international relations and how citizens exercise their fundamental freedoms. How will we respond to the unprecedented opportunities and challenges of the Digital Age?

That is what I would like to have a conversation with you about today. I do not have all of the answers, and neither does my government. But I do have observations drawn from a lifetime of work on human rights, most of it outside the U.S. government, but for the past two years as a member of the Obama Administration. I start with the proposition that in every age, including our Digital Age, human rights and fundamental freedoms do not change. Societies in which citizens are able to exercise the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association are societies that have flourished in the past and will continue to do so in future. Societies that stifle such universal freedoms also stifle innovation. That is why I believe that Internet freedom will be one of the most important issues of your generation and perhaps those who will follow you.

New connective technologies drive the knowledge economy, spur innovation and show us new ways to conceptualize, map, and address all kinds of problems. Scientists collaborate across time and space, while data, talent, and capital flow around the world at the speed of a mouse click. Connective technologies are also driving social change in ways governments, corporations and even the techies themselves have yet to fully grasp. Around the world we have seen new apps applied to old problems in ways that were never imagined.

Let me give you just two examples. The State Department recently ran a competition called Apps for Africa, to spur local software developers to use mobile phones to address local problems. And the winning app, and let me assure you that this outcome could not have been planned by Washington, was an app that helps African farmers predict when their milk cows are about to ovulate. If you are an African farmer, this is hugely helpful – and it’s being used. And the second powerful example comes from Russia in 2010, when wildfires destroyed huge areas of forest, leaving thousands temporarily homeless. Russian bloggers united to create an online “help map” that matched people in the path of the fire with volunteers eager to give supplies, money or their time. They did it by adapting an online platform called Ushahidi that had been developed in Kenya and used for election monitoring in many other places.

But that was 2010. It already seems like ancient history. By now, every government understands the power of ordinary citizens to harness the Internet and social media to express themselves, network and organize. Some governments have embraced these new technologies as a way to connect with and serve their citizens, and they are reaping the economic benefits. I understand that in recent weeks your own local government here in Nizhny Novgorod has begun to provide free Wi-Fi to central areas of the city, and that the telecom provider Rostelekom intends to bring broadband Internet to every town with a population of over 1,000 people by the end of 2012. I also heard that your city government’s web portal was ranked #1 in Russia.

At the World Economic Forum last January, President Medvedev acknowledged the power and the promise of new technologies when he said, “Any attempts to limit the Internet or stifle innovation will lead the world to stagnation. Russia will not support initiatives that put Internet freedom in question.”

Yours is the first generation of “digital natives.” You live online. And so you understand intuitively the dangers of an online world where citizens in one country would receive censored information and as a result form a distorted view of the world. And you understand the need to protect the promise and the potential of a truly free and global Internet.

When a country curtails Internet freedom, it places limits on its economic future. There isn’t an economic Internet and a social Internet and a political Internet; there’s just the Internet. You can’t be open for business but closed for free expression.

The Internet is powerful only because ideas and information are powerful, because people are powerful. Facebook or VKontakte [vuh-kon-tact-yeh] only accelerates the sharing of ideas and information. Governments that respect the rights of their citizens have no reason to fear the Internet.

Still, in some countries debate rages about whether or how it might be acceptable to control the Internet. I read that the Superjob.ru web portal polled 1,600 Russians last month. Forty two percent of those surveyed support the idea of establishing government control over social networks. But the same percentage of Russians have the opposite view, believing that such control would be a violation of human rights.

Some argue that extensive government controls of the Internet are necessary to combat terrorism, to fight intolerance, to protect children from pornography, or to prevent civic unrest—or to preempt political protest. Others believe, as I do, that we can address these real concerns without destroying the open internet. How do we make sense of these competing interests?

Let’s start with the issue of security threats which are very real in your country and in ours. The tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on my own country last month was a stark reminder of the threat of organized terrorist networks. You also marked the anniversary of the Beslan siege in September as well.
But I believe that the need to thwart terrorism must not be used as a justification for squelching the freedoms of expression, association and assembly – online or offline. My government is determined to stop terrorism and other criminal activity online and offline. We are equally determined to do that while honoring our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms. Attempts to build walls around ideas, whether online or offline, are wrong, they are unwise, and ultimately, they are unworkable. You can delete words, block content or imprison bloggers, but in the Digital Age, you cannot arrest an idea. And you can’t stem the flow of information for long. As President Obama said last year, “Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.”

We champion Internet Freedom because we champion the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association everywhere, for online activity as well as offline. These are universal principles that were adopted at the United Nations more than 60 years ago in the Declaration of Universal Human Rights. The Internet is just a new venue. My boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has called the Internet the “town square, classroom, marketplace, coffeehouse, and nightclub” of our times.

My point is that we don’t need a new set of international treaties or commissions either to lay out or implement the principles of rule of law and freedom on the Internet. We have universal principles, and they are already embodied in international law. Under the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international law, governments everywhere have an enduring commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms that do not and should not change with the latest technologies.

That is why we are concerned by reports that surfaced last month that the Collective Security Treaty Organization, of which Russia is a leading member, will – under the guise of promoting law and order —seek to monitor social networks to prevent the organization of mass demonstrations. We’re also disturbed by Roskomnadzor (Ros-comm-nad-zor)’s announcement that it will launch a system for automated monitoring of the Internet in order to suppress some vaguely-defined content. Also last month at the United Nations General Assembly, Russia introduced a draft Code of Conduct for Information Security. While we are still reviewing the details of this proposed code, we are troubled by the suggestion that a new convention or treaty is necessary to govern the Internet. The U.S. position has always been that existing international law applies in cyberspace – whether it is international human rights law or the law of armed conflict.

The human challenge of Internet freedom is to use technological tools to build a different kind of relationship between citizens, civil society and their governments — a relationship based upon broad participation in governance by all citizens. I hope and believe that your generation will use these tools to empower people around the world to participate in a truly democratic process. The world is eager to see what your generation will invent next. And the international community will need your help in forging international consensus and setting the expectations needed to support freedom, peace and prosperity for the coming generation: 5 billion Internet users on planet Earth.

Thank you.

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