The following are a series of interesting quotes from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech on global Internet freedom. In light of what’s been happening in Jordan recently over initial moves by the government to regulate the Internet, and in the process censor free speech, I thought the following excerpts were of some relevance to the times.
“…the internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. First among them is the freedom of expression. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, email, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas – and created new targets for censorship.”
“Those who use the internet to recruit terrorists or distribute stolen intellectual property cannot divorce their online actions from their real world identities. But these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes.”
“Countries that censor news and information must recognize that, from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech. If businesses in your nation are denied access to either type of information, it will inevitably reduce growth.”
It was interesting to see the speech address attempts at censorship by America’s allies in the region, specifically Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and to an extent, Tunisia – but ignore similar recent attempts made by Jordan. Interestingly enough, since Obama’s speech in Cairo, Jordan, as well as the rest of the region, has seen a rise in the number of US-funded project proposals focusing on social media – either by the State Department or by USAID – the latter, while independent, seems to get most of its “guidance” from the former. Many of these projects are aimed at increasing free speech in various countries throughout the region, as well as using web tools to connect citizens to information and larger communication platforms. These projects are funded in the millions and it’s also important to note that none of them tackle digital security in the context of safeguarding those who utilize these technologies – something Lynch picks up on in his analysis. I suppose, there’s some irony to be found in this dilemma that now arises in Jordan.
I wholeheartedly believe that governments such as that of Jordan’s do not entirely believe in free speech as a fundamental human right, but rather, understand it as a privilege granted to its citizens at a cost, and can be stripped away at any given moment when the citizens misbehave. It is bound up in legalities as a way to control it and regulate it; smothered in red tape. It is not perceived to carry the same weight as a billion dollar investment in a skyscraper, even thought free speech and thought has proven itself worldwide to be a source of innovation that is worth much more than any financial investment, and also has the advantage of not depreciating in value like skyscrapers. It is interesting how similar governments of developing nations who fear criticism will look at free speech as a cost, while developed nations have figured out a way for free speech to be economically advantageous.
So if it’s money the government understands then I can only hope that the number of such state department projects are increased. Simply because the Jordanian government, which is incredibly donor-driven (predominantly USAID), will likely back away once it begins to see that the economic cost of censoring the Internet – vis a vis its support of any judicial rulings and/or proposed legislation that induces both fear and thus self-censorship amongst Internet users – is indeed, greater than the social cost of having to weather criticism by the people.
Speeches like these remind us that in the 21st century, the Internet is not merely a barometer for freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom to access information – it is the barometer of freedom, period.