Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Social Contract

In today's White House press conference, President Obama credited technology for mobilizing dissenters in Tunis and Egypt to topple authoritarian regimes.

You can’t maintain power through coercion. At some level, in any society, there has to be consent. And that’s particularly true in this new era where people can communicate not just through some centralized government or a state-run TV, but they can get on a smart phone or a Twitter account and mobilize hundreds of thousands of people.

There are three things that immediately strike me about this response to a reporter's question: 1) It follows a discussion of "young people" and a "young, vibrant generation," which suggests a belief in a "digital generation" as central civic actors, 2) Twitter must be thrilled with being credited in so many news organizations with the overthrow of governments, particularly at a time when its own user base in the United States may be moving on to new technologies at the same time that the young seem not to have chosen to adopt this particular microblogging platform in the first place, and 3) Obama's use of the language of the social contract has its ironies, given that the actual user agreements of most mobile technologies and social media platforms require consent unconditionally.

This last point is important for understanding how the issue of "Internet freedom" has been championed this week by the Obama administration. In a speech given today by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she compared the divergent outcomes of digital activism in Egypt and Iran to argue for "the power of connection technologies" as both an "accelerant of political, social, and economic change, and on the other hand as a means to stifle or extinguish that change."

Clinton presented a much more sophisticated argument than many cyberutopians, one that focused on how technology can service both liberation and repression. Unlike the President, she also seemed to mock associating particular Web 2.0 brand names with civic participation and political change.

Egypt isn’t inspiring people because they communicated using Twitter. It is inspiring because people came together and persisted in demanding a better future. Iran isn’t awful because the authorities used Facebook to shadow and capture members of the opposition. Iran is awful because it is a government that routinely violates the rights of its people.

She then launched into a familiar Habermassian reading of cyberspace before defending the concept of a cosmopolitan, multinational structure of governance.

The internet has become the public space of the 21st century – the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffeehouse, and nightclub. We all shape and are shaped by what happens there, all 2 billion of us and counting. And that presents a challenge. To maintain an internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that will guide us, what rules exist and should not exist and why, what behaviors should be encouraged or discouraged and how.

The goal is not to tell people how to use the internet any more than we ought to tell people how to use any public square, whether it’s Tahrir Square or Times Square. The value of these spaces derives from the variety of activities people can pursue in them, from holding a rally to selling their vegetables, to having a private conversation. These spaces provide an open platform, and so does the internet. It does not serve any particular agenda, and it never should. But if people around the world are going come together every day online and have a safe and productive experience, we need a shared vision to guide us.

One year ago, I offered a starting point for that vision by calling for a global commitment to internet freedom, to protect human rights online as we do offline. The rights of individuals to express their views freely, petition their leaders, worship according to their beliefs – these rights are universal, whether they are exercised in a public square or on an individual blog. The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace. In our time, people are as likely to come together to pursue common interests online as in a church or a labor hall.

Together, the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online comprise what I’ve called the freedom to connect. The United States supports this freedom for people everywhere, and we have called on other nations to do the same. Because we want people to have the chance to exercise this freedom. We also support expanding the number of people who have access to the internet. And because the internet must work evenly and reliably for it to have value, we support the multi-stakeholder system that governs the internet today, which has consistently kept it up and running through all manner of interruptions across networks, borders, and regions.

When thinking about what "Internet freedom" might mean, however, Clinton draws limits on "access" and "transparency" to defend the "private" as well as the "public." What I find interesting is that much like the recording industry and how it defends intellectual property, Clinton focuses on the rhetorical figure of "theft."

Now, I know that government confidentiality has been a topic of debate during the past few months because of WikiLeaks, but it’s been a false debate in many ways. Fundamentally, the WikiLeaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase. Some have suggested that this theft was justified because governments have a responsibility to conduct all of our work out in the open in the full view of our citizens. I respectfully disagree. The United States could neither provide for our citizens’ security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our efforts. Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise.

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