Clinton defends Internet freedom, for other countries

Claims to defend free speech, Web access while prosecuting WikiLeaks

Whether the Internet is a force for good or evil is beside the point, according to a speech U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is scheduled to give at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. today.

What matters is not the inherent morality of the Internet, but what people do there, and the need to lay out clear guidelines for behavior online just as there are (usually) clear guidelines for behavior in the real world, according to excerpts of a speech called "Internet Rights and Wrongs" that were released online in advance of the speech. Some excerpts are below; replays of the actual speech will be available here.

It's not a rousing speech, but it hits all the right current-event notes.

It exudes a relentless optimism about the value of freedom and principle and truth, but doesn't say much about what, specifically the State Dept. or federal government overall will be changing to adhere more closely to those principles.

"Our allegiance to the rule of law does not dissipate in cyberspace, neither does our commitment to protecting civil liberties and human rights. There are times when these principles will raise tensions and pose challenges, but we do not have to choose among them. And we shouldn't. Together they comprise the foundation of a free and open Internet."

It smells more like the kind of statement of principle the State Dept. will use in the same ways it does definitions of human rights, to point out the failings of other people.

In earlier speeches, Clinton called the efforts of foreign governments to censor and restrict the Internet access of their citizens "the modern day equivalent of the Berlin wall."

It's not the content that's most interesting. It's the complete lack of irony.

The U.S. – specifically the State Dept. Hillary Clinton leads – has been the strongest, most consistent force trying to quash WikiLeaks, which made the mistake of embarrassing the U.S. State Dept. as part of its own commitment to transparency and preservation of open information on the Internet.

Clinton's repeated commitment to "the rule of law" in the preservation of freedom online appears to be double-edged, or perhaps two-faced:

On one hand it means the U.S. will work to preserve the rights of citizens such as the Egyptians who used Twitter and texting and Facebook to organize protests that overthrew a dictator.

On the other hand, it means the U.S. will work to suppress information it believes should remain confidential – meaning anything that is sensitive to the U.S. government, whether or not the people holding or using the information are breaking the law.

In Cablegate, someone unquestionably broke the law. The most likely culprit is Army Private Bradley Manning, a low-ranking electronic intelligence analyst accused of downloading thousands of secret cables and walking out with copies on a DVD marked as pop music.

Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, on the other hand, only published the cables. They broke no laws in getting the cables, and just posessing them is not illegal.

Neither is publishing them, no matter how much the State Dept. wishes they were.

The New York Times took the same argument to the Supreme Court in 1971 after it published The Pentagon Papers.

Information obtained legally by the publisher can be published legally, even if it was obtained illegally by whoever is supplying it.

Julian Assange, by the way, just got some extra legal help in the form of civil-libertarian gadfly Alan Dershowitz, who just joined his defense team.

Bradley Manning, meanwhile, is still in solitary confinement, and would like help in the form of some warmer blankets.

Clinton might do better not only to tend to the difference in the defense of those two, while she's taking the plank out of her own eye so she can see to point out the mote in someone else's.

Excerpts from Hilary Clinton's speech "Internet Rights and Wrongs"

"There is a debate underway in some circles about whether the Internet is a force for liberation or repression. But as the events in Iran, Egypt and elsewhere have shown, that debate is largely beside the point. What matters is what people who go online do there, and what principles should guide us as we come together in cyberspace...

... We are convinced that an open Internet fosters long-term peace, progress and prosperity...

...History has shown us that repression often sows the seeds for revolution down the road. Those who clamp down on Internet freedom may be able to hold back the full impact of their people's yearnings for a while, but not forever...

...The United States will continue to promote an Internet where people's rights are protected and that is open to innovation, is interoperable all over the world, secure enough to hold people's trust and reliable enough to support their work. "

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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