Internet and Academic Freedom in the Digital Age

U.S. Department of State - DipNote Blog

Assistant Secretary of State for Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Michael H. Posner with other computer users browsing the internet.

In today’s world, Internet freedom lies at the heart of academic freedom. An open online platform where information and ideas can be exchanged unimpeded is essential to the rigors of contemporary scientific and intellectual exploration. At present, however, Internet freedom remains threatened worldwide. And this poses as much of a danger to scientists and other academics as it does to human rights activists.

Last week, I had the opportunity to discuss the impact of these challenges on the academic community in a keynote address entitled “Science and Academic Freedom in the Digital Age” before a crowd of 250 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

During the talk, I stressed that there are two simultaneous phenomena occurring throughout the world. On the one hand, we see the enhanced use of technology to monitor, censor, and chill free expression, including through attempts to intimidate intellectuals and stifle independent thought via surveillance, threats, interrogations and detentions. According to the OpenNet Initiative, for example, 960 million Internet users still live in countries that impose worrisome restrictions on content — that’s 47 percent of all Internet users.

On the other hand, we are also seeing incredible progress and intellectual ferment produced by the interdisciplinary cooperation between scientists, academics, human rights workers, diplomats, NGOs and businesses. Organizations like AAAS, for example, are using scientific advancements to document the destruction of villages in Darfur. Others, like the U.S. Institute of Peace, have an entire center devoted to science, technology and peacebuilding.

All of these efforts are rooted in principles articulated in the U.S. Constitution and subsequently incorporated into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Protecting the right of freedom of expression is not merely an international obligation of states; it is also essential to the unfettered thinking that produces scientific advancement in the first place.

The U.S. government has therefore made it a foreign policy priority to protect the Internet as a platform for, inter alia, scientific discourse. As I described in a recent editorial for Science magazine, we launched a coalition of like-minded countries to protect global Internet freedom. In addition, we have in place many programs to expand infrastructure investment and lower the cost of access for many people worldwide. And through an Executive Order signed by President Obama, we have pledged to take steps to stop the transfer of technologies likely to be used by the Syrian and Iranian governments to commit human rights abuses against Internet users and others, scientists included.

The human rights and scientific communities have a storied partnership, one where academics have played important roles in advancing human rights and where human rights defenders have played vital roles in advancing scientific freedom. As challenges to both communities continue, so will the U.S. government’s commitment to supporting, strengthening and defending scientific advancement and human freedom.

Cross posted from DipNote Blog, the official blog of the U.S. Department of State.

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