Addressing an international crowd at the Newseum in Washington, the United States' shrine to a free press and an open society, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a landmark speech on internet freedoms and digital democracy. She announced a $15 billion committment to helping developing and developed nations around the world empower citizens—especially young people and women—to use technology in ways that would promote open conversation and democratic institutions, from Vietnam to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Her thesis: America, as birthplace of the web, should lead the planet on its best uses. "We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas," she said. "Given the magnitude of the challenges we’re facing, we need people around the world to pool their knowledge and creativity to help rebuild the global economy, protect our environment, defeat violent extremism and build a future in which every human being can realize their God-given potential."
Clinton's State Departmenrt has made great use of technology over the course of her first year as diplomat-in-chief—dramatically intervening at the height of the Iranian election crisis in June 2009 in order to keep Twitter, which had served as a key source of information for local protesters, available in the face of the government's attempts at censorship. At a December event observing Human Rights Week, the Internet—access to it and free expression on it—was likewise a key focal point:
We can help change agents, gain access to and share information through the internet and mobile phones so that they can communicate and organize. With camera phones and Facebook pages, thousands of protestors in Iran have broadcast their demands for rights denied, creating a record for all the world, including Iran’s leaders, to see. I’ve established a special unit inside the State Department to use technology for 21st century statecraft.
The recent, high-profile announcement that search giant Google would no longer cooperate with government censors in China thrust the issue of democracy and technology once more into the spotlight. Whereas the American company had for years turned a blind eye to China's requirement that certain keywords ("human rights" or "Tienanmen Square massacre," for example) be removed from Google's search results, the revelation that the Chinese government had been hacking the Gmail accounts of certain dissidents changed their minds. That Google is willing to give up a market of 300 million web users in China sends a strong message about the morality of free access to ideas. In her speech at the Newseum, Clinton did not directly reference China (or Iran, for that matter), saying instead: "Countries or individuals that engage in cyberattacks should face consequences and international condemnation."
The shape of that condemnation—or whether China will care—is yet undetermined. But Clinton emphasized the positive side of the new diplomatic paradigm at every turn. In earthquake-striken Haiti, she noted, a woman was saved from under a building because of text-messages she had sent detailing her condition and location. In an age where Kenyans use cell phones as mobile banks, and Haitian expatriates track family members over the State Department website, these humanitarian and practical uses will define the 21st century.
Of course, the Internet's new connectivities and messaging strategies are available to everyone—including the Taliban, which recently went web 2.0:
American and Afghan analysts see the Taliban’s effort as part of a broad initiative that employs every tool they can muster, including the Internet technology they once denounced as un-Islamic. Now they use word of mouth, messages to cellphones and Internet videos to get their message out.
Who will win the Internet war? Our partner, Slate, sponsored a chat on the topic yesterday at the New America Foundation. Watch as Rebecca MacKinnon of the Open Society Institute, Evgeny Morozov of Georgetown University, andColumbia University professor Tim Wu discuss what happens when authority meets technology:
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.