WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China, Syria and others face a “dictator’s dilemma” over Internet control and risk being left behind as the rest of the world embraces new technologies, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday.
Clinton, making her second major speech on Internet policy, said the recent Internet-fueled toppling of rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and protests in Iran, showed governments could not long pick and choose which freedoms to grant their citizens.
“We believe that governments who have erected barriers to Internet freedom — whether they’re technical filters or censorship regimes or attacks on those who exercise their rights to expression and assembly online — will eventually find themselves boxed in,” Clinton said in a speech at a Washington, D.C. university.
“They will face a dictator’s dilemma, and will have to choose between letting the walls fall or paying the price to keep them standing,” she said, saying these would include both further oppression and the opportunity cost of missing out on new economic and political ideas.
Clinton said the United States would push projects to help people evade government Internet limits, adding $25 million this year to $20 million already devoted to technologies, tools and training that can help break down barriers imposed by repressive governments.
Under Clinton, the State Department has promoted Internet freedom as a basic human right, although it has also struggled with the consequences as it seeks to control the damage wrought by the WikiLeaks release of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic cables.
Clinton acknowledged tensions over how the Internet is used, saying it threw up new questions over how to balance such competing priorities as transparency, confidentiality, free speech and security.
But she stressed that while it was right to seek a code of conduct for Internet activity, this is no way should compromise commitment to free and open exchange over technology platforms such as Twitter and Facebook that are essentially neutral.
“Iran isn’t awful because the authorities used Facebook to shadow and capture members of the opposition; it is awful because it is a government that routinely violates the rights of its people,” she said.
Clinton’s forceful U.S. stance on the Internet has led to friction with China and other countries including Syria, Burma and Cuba which the United States accuses of censoring online information and interfering with “the right to connect.”
That clash was thrown into stark relief last year when search giant Google Inc threatened to quit China’s market amid charges of hacking and censorship, though it later devised a work-around that it said both complied with Chinese law and its own commitment to users.
Clinton said China may now succeed in marrying Internet controls with high economic growth, but that its censorship policies still “threaten one day to become a noose that limits growth and development.”
“Governments that arrest bloggers, pry into the peaceful activities of their citizens, and limit their access to the Internet may claim to be seeking security. They may even mean it. But they are taking the wrong path,” Clinton said.
“Those who clamp down on Internet freedom may be able to hold back the full expression of their people’s yearnings for a while, but not forever.”
Despite Clinton’s championing of the Internet, the State Department has nevertheless been criticized for not moving quickly enough to back up its rhetoric with action.
Senator Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tuesday released a report saying that despite its rhetoric, the State Department has not moved quickly enough to fund censorship-busting applications.
“Recent delays in allocating preexisting funding, and the inept handling of an untested technology, have strengthened the hands of those governments, including China,” the report said.
Dan Baer, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor, said there was no delay and that new monies were being carefully allocated as the United States pushes forward with its Internet agenda.
“From our standpoint, things are on schedule,” he said in an interview.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman