The U.S. government is making free speech in cyber space a key part of American foreign policy in a fresh bid to reach out to Internet users around the world.
Experts say the push not only highlights the growing influence of the Internet and its power to pressure even the most tightly controlled governments, but it also seeks to shed light on the link between economic growth and Internet freedoms.
In a speech earlier this year on Internet Freedom, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called information networks the planet's new nervous system. "Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable," said the secretary.
A Voice for the Voiceless
The Internet often is increasingly giving voice to the voiceless.
Last June, mobile phone footage of a young Iranian woman's shooting shocked people around the world and galvanized opposition protesters as they rallied against election results in Iran.
During Burma's 2007 uprisings, amateur video and photographs of protests and the government's crackdown spread around the world over the Internet.
The Center for Democracy and Technology’s Cynthia Wong says Washington has put the world on notice that it considers freedom of expression on the Web a core value.
"We think it is really historic. It is the first time really that global Internet freedom has been elevated to that level,” says Wong. “It really showed a recognition that preserving Internet freedom is absolutely necessary for a whole range of foreign policy goals, from protecting human rights to promoting economic development."
Google vs. China
The push for Internet freedom occurs during a showdown between Google and China. The Internet search engine cites a recent cyber attack on its infrastructure that originated in China and increasing government censorship. Chinese authorities counter that Google must obey Chinese laws.
Beijing accuses Washington of trying to impose Internet imperialism and sees Google as part of that effort.
Internet specialist Rebecca MacKinnon says it is not that simple. "One thing is very clear from the chatter I see on Chinese blogs, and also from just what people in China tell me, is that Google is much more popular among China's Internet users than the United States,” says MacKinnon, who currently is a visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy.
“People feel a great deal more loyalty, they feel emotionally more connected to Google in a way that is, shall we say more purely positive, than the way they feel about the United States, which is much more conflicted," she adds.
Responses from Chinese Internet users has varied, with some placing flowers outside the company's headquarters in Beijing and others posting blogs bidding the company good riddance.
Google Situation Heats up Debate
Stephen Yates, the president of D.C. Asia Advisory, a business and public policy consultant group, says the situation with Google has only helped heat up the debate for free speech in cyber space.
“It is one thing for the world to think that the Chinese government is onerous and intruding on the lives of its citizens,” says Yates. “The fact that it is willing and capable to do it to almost anyone who has a political heart beating in the world is a much bigger threat than they wanted to convey.”
Yates says that over the coming year cyber security and Internet freedom is going to be a defining issue for Washington and Congress. And while such additional attention from Washington is likely to push authoritarian country’s to tighten their cyber controls even more, MacKinnon notes there are limits to how far authoritarian governments can go.
“And so this is one of the issues, is how far can you go before you turn your Internet into an Intranet, asks MacKinnon. “And if you have an Intranet, and your Internet is not sufficiently connected to the outside world, can you be a world economic powerhouse?”
The power of the Internet to spread information, even when governments try to suppress it, prompted the Obama administration to announce recently that Internet companies can now export services to Cuba, Sudan, and Iran, despite a ban against other types of trade.
Secretary Clinton argues that from an economic standpoint, there is no difference between censoring political speech and commercial speech, because, as she puts it, there is a direct link between online freedom and economic growth.