Clinton outlines global Internet freedom policy

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has harshly criticized China and other countries for restricting Internet access. Mrs Clinton said there had been a recent spike in threats to the free flow of information. She was speaking at the Newseum in Washington, DC in a wide-ranging speech on Internet freedom. Cyrus Farivar reports.

MARCO WERMAN: Americans have donated millions of dollars toward relief efforts in Haiti. That includes some $25 million donated via text messages. That's just one example of how technology helps to shape our response to events beyond our shores. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned Haiti in her speech today about technology and Internet freedom. Cyrus Farivar has more from Washington.

CYRUS FARIVAR: After reminding the audience of the importance of communications technologies in disaster situations, and how one woman in Haiti was apparently rescued because of a text message, Secretary Clinton tempered her words. She acknowledged that technology itself does not have an inherent agenda.

HILARY CLINTON: Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns, or nuclear power can either energize a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill.

FARIVAR: She noted, for example, that terrorist groups and authoritarian regimes use the Internet to recruit new followers and to spread their own propaganda. But even if the technology was value neutral, Clinton said the American government is not.

CLINTON: We stand for a single Internet, where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world's information infrastructure will become what we and others, make of it.

FARIVAR: She likened the freedom to connect to the Internet as a modern analogy of the centuries old American right to freely assemble. And just as dissidents of the 18th Century were free to communicate in person, so should they be allowed to freely congregate online. Clinton also added that more and freer Internet connectivity isn't just about political freedom, but also about increasing economic activity. Still, Clinton closed by alluding to the recent case in China where Google would no longer comply with China's systems for censoring search results.

CLINTON: For companies this issue is about more than claiming the moral high ground. It really comes down to the trust between firms and their customers. Consumers everywhere want to have confidence that the Internet companies they rely on will provide comprehensive search results, and act as responsible stewards of their own personal information.

FARIVAR: Reactions to Clinton's speech seemed to be positive. She drew a standing ovation from the crowd, which included government officials, technology advocates and human rights activists. However, many wished that there had been more concrete examples of what the United States will do beyond giving general statements of freedom and prosperity in China, Iran, and other global hotspots. During the question and answer period, Courtney Radsch of the NGO Freedom House asked Clinton whether American technology policy has any teeth. Clinton responded by saying that it was generally in the long-term interests of business and government to provide and open Internet. But after the speech, Radsch was not completely satisfied with Clinton's answer.

COURTNEY RADSCH: I think that relying on businesses to morally do the right thing is a nice idea, but it has to translate into profits, right? I mean, as we've seen, businesses do not do the right thing. Otherwise, we wouldn't be in this financial crisis, right now, right? So I would have liked to hear stronger language. Because I asked her where are the teeth? And she really didn't answer that question. She didn't say where the teeth are.

FARIVAR: Others seemed to think that this represented a new direction for the State Department, and would help technologists who want to do what they can to help countries where the Internet is censored. That's according to Austin Heap, one of the creators of the forthcoming program Haystack, an anti-filtering tool for Iranians.

AUSTIN HEAP: Well, it will ultimately impact Haystack and other projects like that because it will make it easier for people to, you know, focus on the product and focus on developing the tools necessary to keep the Internet free in places where it's censored without having to jump through all the federal hurdles.

FARIVAR: Haystack is currently awaiting State Department clearance before it's released to Iran. Clinton suggested that such projects will receive support from the Obama Administration over the coming year. As part of an approach that she calls 21st Century Statecraft. For The World, I'm Cyrus Farivar in Washington.