Feb 15, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Government Policy & Internet Freedom

The subject of internet freedom is a contentious one, even without the hornet’s nest of foreign policy being involved.  Though not exactly an issue of common household conversation, this touchy subject has fierce advocates on both sides here in the United States.  It is one of those rare subjects in US politics that does not divide clearly along partisan lines, and also among those thorny areas where concepts of freedom of speech, information and a right to privacy contrast sharply with state and private interests.  So when Secretary Clinton spoke today on the promotion of internet freedom around the world it didn’t take long for criticism of the administration to start rolling in.

Internet freedom is one of those subjects that opinions vary heavily on depending on the specific situation and one’s personal interests in keeping information controlled.  In light of this year’s rather massive political scandals over WikiLeaks and the diplomatic cabletastrophy, it seemed an interesting choice of subjects for Secretary Clinton to address.  On the other hand, given the impact internet freedom and the development of technology had in the recent uprisings throughout the Middle East, how could she not?

Unfortunately the nation has faced a great number of problems with contradictions in policy and public diplomacy throughout the political crises coursing through the Middle East.  Our government’s reactions to the troubles presented by WikiLeaks, set against Secretary Clinton’s words on internet freedom seem to be the latest addition to the list of contradictions.  There is no doubt that the US has a more relaxed approach to information control than the world’s authoritarian regimes, but we’ve a long way to go still before dubbing ourselves champions of internet freedom.

It is clear that internet freedom is an immensely important subject lately, and easily one of the greatest tools to promote government accountability, transparency and support for democratic institutions.  What is less clear is just how much right we as a nation have to lecture on the subject at this particular moment in history, and what potential impacts such lecturing might have on international relations.

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2 Comments

  • I don’t see why we have more or less of a right in this area over any other. The bigger problem I see is hypocrisy. US foreign policy has always been mixed in these areas, which is why the US government isn’t exactly a credible voice in support of democracy in post-Mubarak Egypt. I think actions that are inconsistent with stated ideals are more problematic than taking a stand. What I see from working on democracy and governance programs is that in a lot of countries people don’t really see the US as a supporter of democracy. Many resent the work the US does in this area and are skeptical of its motives, even in relatively democratic countries. What I often see is that the words people use to describe the US are “arrogant” and “subversive,” rather than “supporter of democracy.”

  • I agree regarding the issue of hypocrisy, yet I think that innately impacts our ability to speak and be taken seriously on the subject. I think the subject of democracy and governance is a quality parallel really, particularly as the internet is seen as more and more of a tool to support public interests. Basically I feel our opinions on internet freedom are rapidly growing as hypocritical as our opinions on representative government.

    To be clear I think the US /should/ be a voice on internet freedom, yet our actions domestically and internationally make it hard to do so credibly.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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