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Defining and preserving internet freedom is a key and growing challenge. In an astonishingly short period of time the internet has become the greatest purveyor of news and information in history and a potent catalyst for innovation and commerce. From a small band of university researchers sharing documents to more than a billion people now connecting in real-time around the globe, the internet has proven to be a force multiplier for freedom, in even the most remote corners of the globe.
But the internet has also become a lightning rod for repressive governments as they try to restrict or block freedom of expression. Right now there are people imprisoned in countries like China, Cuba, and Iran simply for expressing their peaceful views online. The United States is determined to maximise the free flow of information over the internet and minimise success by repressive regimes in censoring information and silencing legitimate debate in this global town hall. Nonetheless, we oppose illicit online activities, such as copyright infringement, child pornography crimes, and criminal incitement to commit violent acts.
In recent months, numerous journalists have detailed the complex moral calculus that emerges when governments — such as China’s — try to control freedom of expression on the internet.
Fundamentally, internet freedom stems from the principles of freedom of expression enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and human rights law. On this basis, we oppose the efforts of non-democratic governments to misuse the internet to restrict freedom of expression or to track and prosecute dissidents. Promoting access to information over the Internet can advance the goals of good governance, economic development, support for innovation, and a vibrant civil society. Transparency — informing users about changes or restrictions on content — holds governments engaged in censorship accountable for their actions. More broadly, effective rule of law is essential when companies are asked to turn over internet user data or to block Internet information.
The US government and the State Department have been on the front lines of the battle for internet freedom. Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, has made this issue a priority, establishing an internal task force that draws upon the State Department’s expertise in many areas, including international communications policy, human rights, democracy, business advocacy, corporate responsibility, and relevant countries and regions.
Since its launch in February, the Department of State’s Global Internet Freedom Task Force has been meeting to review the foreign policy aspects of internet freedom, including the use of technology to restrict access to political content and to track and repress dissidents, efforts to modify internet governance structures in order to restrict the free flow of information, and the impact of these trends on U.S. companies and US foreign policy objectives.
This is an issue that transcends governments, affecting businesses, scholars, organisations, and individuals around the world. We are therefore seeking the best ideas inside and outside of the government, listening to people from internet companies, non-governmental organisations, and other internet experts. We are also consulting with other government agencies and Congressional representatives.
While there is much we are doing at State to promote universal principles of freedom, we urge other players, such as NGOs and especially the internet industry to take voluntary action to ensure that, as they spread the availability of the internet around the world, they also take care to minimise its abuse as a means of political repression.
In his recent meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao President Bush raised the issue of internet freedom saying it was important in a modern and free society. We will ensure that US concerns about internet restrictions are being raised with other governments and in international organisations. We want to expand our work with like-minded governments too. The European Commissioner for Information Society and Media recently flagged these concerns in Beijing.
Over the coming weeks and months, the task force will recommend to Ms Rice specific policy and diplomatic initiatives to maximise access to the internet and minimise some governments’ efforts to block information.
Six decades ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated that, “Everyone has the right to information, to freedom of opinion and expression. And this includes the right to freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” These rights were reaffirmed just last fall by the more than 170 governments at the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society. We will work with all stakeholders to determine the best diplomatic and technological strategies to protect these rights in practice so that people throughout the world can freely participate via the internet in the global marketplace of ideas.
This writer is US under secretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs