Friday, January 22, 2010

The Fifth Freedom

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Remarks on Internet Freedom is a remarkable piece of official rhetoric about computational culture that emphasizes familiar themes of freedom, transformation, novelty, interconnectedness, information flow, and entrepreneurship.

What is also striking about the speech is the way that it never mentions the word "Google," even though its direct address to the Chinese government clearly takes the side of the Mountain View, California company in adopting the search engine corporation's complaints about unfair business practices and vulnerable computer networks that are central aspects of its ultimatum to Beijing. In contrast, Clinton avoids the language of brinksmanship in her statement and instead emphasizes global universalism rather than two-sided confrontation in her speech.

The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet. When something happens in Haiti or Hunan, the rest of us learn about it in real time – from real people. And we can respond in real time as well. Americans eager to help in the aftermath of a disaster and the girl trapped in the supermarket are connected in ways that were not even imagined a year ago, even a generation ago. That same principle applies to almost all of humanity today. As we sit here, any of you – or maybe more likely, any of our children – can take out the tools that many carry every day and transmit this discussion to billions across the world.

Now, in many respects, information has never been so free. There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. And even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.

During his visit to China in November, for example, President Obama held a town hall meeting with an online component to highlight the importance of the internet. In response to a question that was sent in over the internet, he defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship. The United States belief in that ground truth is what brings me here today.

Because amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. 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. The same networks that help organize movements for freedom also enable al-Qaida to spew hatred and incite violence against the innocent. And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.

In the last year, we’ve seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet. In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared. And last Friday in Egypt, 30 bloggers and activists were detained. One member of this group, Bassem Samir, who is thankfully no longer in prison, is with us today. So while it is clear that the spread of these technologies is transforming our world, it is still unclear how that transformation will affect the human rights and the human welfare of the world’s population.

On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. 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. Now, this challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic. The words of the First Amendment to our Constitution are carved in 50 tons of Tennessee marble on the front of this building. And every generation of Americans has worked to protect the values etched in that stone.

Franklin Roosevelt built on these ideas when he delivered his Four Freedoms speech in 1941. Now, at the time, Americans faced a cavalcade of crises and a crisis of confidence. But the vision of a world in which all people enjoyed freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear transcended the troubles of his day. And years later, one of my heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, worked to have these principles adopted as a cornerstone of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They have provided a lodestar to every succeeding generation, guiding us, galvanizing us, and enabling us to move forward in the face of uncertainty.

As "Clinton unveils U.S. policy on Internet freedom" makes clear, the rhetoric borrows from FDR's oratory against expanding totalitarianism by adding a fifth freedom about access to computer networks and secure data that wasn't part of the Roosevelt administration's agenda.

I have to point out, however, that choice of focusing on digital "freedom" rather than digital "rights" is significant, particularly given how digital rights could become a way to build coalitions and move policy.

There is already response to the speech registering on Chinese editorial pages, which names Google specifically. It is interesting to see how state-sanctioned opinion pieces like "The real stake in 'free flow of information'" use anti-Google pro-nationalist language about "information imperialism," which is similar to that used in countries such as France, as well as an opposition between "democracy" and the "free flow of information" that Europeans might be less likely to adopt.

The hard fact that Clinton has failed to highlight in her speech is that bulk of the information flowing from the US and other Western countries is loaded with aggressive rhetoric against those countries that do not follow their lead.

In contrast, in the global information order, countries that are disadvantaged could not produce the massive flow of information required, and could never rival the Western countries in terms of information control and dissemination.

Keeping that in mind, it must be realized that when it comes to information content, quantity, direction and flow, there is absolutely no equality and fairness.

The online freedom of unrestricted access is, thus, only one-way traffic, contrary to the spirit of democracy and calculated to strengthen a monopoly.

Countries disadvantaged by the unequal and undemocratic information flow have to protect their national interest, and take steps toward this. This is essential for their political stability as well as normal conduct of economic and social life.

These facts about the difficulties of developing nations, though understood by politicians like Clinton, are not communicated to the people of Western countries. Instead, those politicians publicize and pursue their claims purely from a Western standpoint.

This practice is morally unworthy and has been resisted by intellectuals in developing countries.

Take Google's threat to pull out of China for example. It has stirred widespread debate among the public in China. The recent poll conducted by shows a growing number of people voicing opposition to an unregulated or uncensored Google in China. As many as 81 percent of those polled are opposed to Chinese government accepting Google's demands.

It is not because the people of China do not want free flow of information or unlimited access to Internet, as in the West. It is just because they recognize the situation that their country is forced to face.

Unlike advanced Western countries, Chinese society is still vulnerable to the effect of multifarious information flowing in, especially when it is for creating disorder.

Western countries have long indoctrinated non-Western nations on the issue of freedom of speech. It is an aggressive political and diplomatic strategy, rather than a desire for moral values, that has led them to do so.

The free flow of information is an universal value treasured in all nations, including China, but the US government's ideological imposition is unacceptable and, for that reason, will not be allowed to succeed.

China's real stake in the "free flow of information" is evident in its refusal to be victimized by information imperialism.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home