1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Internet freedom

February 16, 2011

In a major policy speech on Internet freedom, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged backing for free access to the Web. Nations that suppress online activity will pay an economic cost and risk unrest.

hillary clinton
'Internet Rights And Wrongs' was the title of Clinton's speechImage: dapd

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak stepped down last week after three decades of gripping to power. What moved him to do so?

"Not the Internet did it, but the people did," said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the opening of her speech at George Washington University on Tuesday.

However, social media such as Facebook and Twitter showed just how powerful the Internet can be in pushing political change. With its reach and speed, it can help mobilize people against dictators and regimes, she said.

The same technology, though, also enabled "wrongdoing on an unprecedented scale." Clinton called on countries such as Iran, China and Syria to open access to the Internet and allow the free flow of information in their societies. No country can profit from the economic benefits of the Internet while at the same time blocking the free exchange of ideas between its citizens, she said.

Balancing act between freedom and security

According to Clinton, the debate about the future of the Internet is mainly focused on finding the right balance: safeguarding liberty and security, protecting transparency and confidentiality, as well as freedom of expression and tolerance.

Facebook and Twitter logos with a banned symbol
There is no stopping social network toolsImage: DW

"For the United States, the choice is clear," she said. "On the spectrum of Internet freedom, we place ourselves on the side of openness." It was her second major speech on the issue in the past year.

In the past three years, the US government has spent more than $20 million (14.8 million euros) to support access to information and communication.

"In the year since my speech, people worldwide have continued to use the Internet to solve shared problems and expose public corruption, from the people in Russia who tracked wildfires online and organized a volunteer firefighting squad, to the children in Syria who used Facebook to reveal abuse by their teachers, to the Internet campaign in China that helps parents find their missing children," Clinton told the audience.

This year, the Obama administration will devote another $25 million in order to make the Internet better accessible to more people, Clinton said. She also announced plans to launch Twitter feeds in Chinese, Russian and Hindi - just days after starting Twitter feeds in Arabic and Farsi.

The State Department is also setting up its own post to coordinate Internet-related issues. It will deal exclusively with problems of Internet security, and network with other bodies for this purpose.

Worldwide regulations for using the Web

Clinton said this virtual marketplace needed principles to guide users.

"The goal is not to tell people how to use the Internet any more than we ought to tell people how to use any public square, whether it's Tahrir Square or Times Square," she said.

Rather, the financial support aims to help people foil oppression in authoritarian states, she said. The United States wanted to help ensure that the Internet remained open for exchange and that governments had no success in their attempts to restrict activities in the Web.

No government influence on WikiLeaks dissociation

globe with email symbol
The Internet needs to function freely worldwide, Clinton said

Clinton said the WikiLeaks publication of secret US diplomatic cables did not challenge the government's commitment to Internet freedom.

"The fact that WikiLeaks used the Internet is not the reason we criticized it," Clinton said. "Fundamentally, the WikiLeaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase."

Clinton rejected reports that claimed the US government had played a role in the decision by a number of US companies - including Amazon, MasterCard, PayPal and Visa - to cut off services to WikiLeaks.

"Business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own values or policies regarding WikiLeaks were not at the direction of the Obama administration," she said.

Nonetheless, the US government was looking into possible courses of action against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.

While Clinton was giving her speech in Washington, a US judge in neighboring Virginia held a hearing into a US government attempt to obtain information about the Twitter accounts of people connected with WikiLeaks.

Author: Katharina Lohmeyer, DW Washington / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge