5 Billion People Whose Values are Not Ours

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

On January 21, 2010 Hilary Rodham Clinton gave what was then promoted as an important speech on promoting internet freedom. In this first set of “Remarks on Internet Freedom” Clinton used the backdrop of the Newseum to suggest that important ways in which the Newseum served as an important reminder of our first amendment freedoms, the internet will serve as the future ground for promoting free speech and by extension the promotion of democracy. Clinton’s second speech, nearly a year later, this time much more subdued both in venue and tone, marked a noticeable shift in state department rhetoric about the internet’s role in the promoting of democracy.

It seems to me that the speech in 2010 was organized around the tension between using the internet to promote freedom, the internet as the samizdat of our day, and the dangers that the internet posses to cyber security (how to maximize the first, while recognizing the threats of the second). Indeed the remarks on one level were structured around the idea that on the one hand the internet is a wonderful tool for promoting freedom of expression which if let lose upon the despotic regimes will yield democratic change, and the threat that these new technologies create in terms of dangers from hackers, threats to business, piracy, etc. Most of the speech though, was focused on promoting the notion that the Internet if used correctly is a great (primary) tool of 21st Century Statecraft.

Flash forward to yesterday’s speech and the rhetoric has shifted, now the organizing logic is around two examples: Egypt/Tunisia and Wikileaks. The question has congealed around these two case studies, how to enable the internet as a tool for promoting democracy in foreign countries, while ensuring that is doesn’t threaten US national interests. While their is still a recognition that the internet can be used for good or ill, the examples of good and ill have become far more focused. Indeed in the most recent speech protecting the internet as a space of commerce is almost entirely absent. Commerce only gets a mention in so much as it relates to the dictator’s dilemma, the idea that these new technologies are necessary for economic advancement (thus countries must accept them) but also usher in the means for removal of any authoritarian regime. In short the question Clinton poses is how can the internet not be a threat to US sovereignty while simultaneously be used as a tool to undermine despotic regimes (the sovereignty of other countries). This is an impossible position to try and uphold, the contradiction is readily apparent (but, for what it is worth, Clinton’s more recent speech marks a far better understanding of this contradiction and the role that the internet plays).

I think the first thing that is worth noting is that the cyber-utopic rhetoric has been vastly scaled back. Gone is the sense that one gets from the first speech that the internet is a force, a primary cause of social change. Indeed at several points Clinton remarked that we should recognize that “the internet did not do any of those things; people did. . . . Egypt isn’t inspiring people because they communicated using Twitter. It is inspiring because people came together and persisted in demanding a better future.” While in her first remarks one got the sense that internet freedom was becoming the battleground for 21st Century statecraft, in this second speech it is clear the focus is on a much more complicated picture of which the internet is merely one part. Free speech is a necessary but not sufficient cause for change, and the internet is just one factor in free speech, not the only one (even if it is a really, really, really, large one). And in the closing section of the speech Clinton recognizes that circumvention is not the only solution, and that solutions are likely to be multiple and not singular (read Haytack).

There is considerably more focus in the second speech on the way that the internet can be used for ill not by nefarious economic actors (pirates, hackers, identity thefts, the examples from the first speech) but rather by political actors (The Revolutionary Guard using the internet to arrest members of the Green Movement).

But what is striking about the speech is that its not organized around this tension, that the internet can be used by despotic regimes and those seeking social justice, but rather that her remarks then turn to the question of how to use the network to simultaneously foster liberty and security. That is her remarks aren’t about how to threaten the security of foreign dictators by enabling the liberty of citizens around the world, but rather about how to promote liberty around the world, while simultaneously protecting our security.

This I would like to suggest is an untenable position.

To be sure Clinton tries to separate out cases, and weave a path that argues our security can be protected while we foster the liberty of others, but ultimately the example she uses proves the impossibility of such a path. On the one hand citizens need access to information and the ability to freely exchange ideas with each other in order to form a civil society but on the other governments need the ability to decide what should be made private and public.

Nowhere is this tension more clear than through the case of Twitter. So, while Clinton is praising Twitter as a tool for spreading free speech and enabling conversation, the US government is simulatenously engaged in a court battle against Twitter to gain information about its users as part of its pursuit of Wikileaks. While Clinton argues that Wikileaks exposed US activists to greater risk (I actually haven’t seen evidence that this is true), human rights activists could also point out that Wikileaks exposed the way that governments and corporations undermined human rights. One could insist that the problem is theft and display of private information, but it is theft and display of private information that the US wants to foster, just theft and display of despotic regimes private information. If Wikileaks was only “stealing and displaying” info from governments that the US felt were anti-democratic I doubt it would serve as one of the organizing examples.

But Clinton gets this (or at least her speech writers do) when she says that the internet isn’t the real issue here, values are, that we need to decide what values will govern and determine this public space (lets leave aside the rather large issue that the internet really isn’t public space at all but rather a corporately controlled space). The problem here is nothing about the internet guarantees that US values will come to be the ones that determine the principles of its governance (sure there are historical reasons like influence over ICANN that mean the US has a greater say, but this influence is neither determinate nor guaranteed).

And here is where we get the most important line in the speech: “In the next 20 years, nearly 5 billion people will join the network. It is those users who will decide the future.” The subtext: nothing about the future of the internet guarantees US sovereignty or exceptionalism, because those 5 billion, they aren’t US citizens. And, let’s just add that it isn’t at all clear that those 5 billion people are going to be able to agree on what those “values” are.