The speech on internet freedom by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton overnight Australian time contains some thoughtful observations about the connection between online communication, politics and freedom. It’s also a display of the most remarkable hypocrisy from the government at the centre of attempts to destroy WikiLeaks.

Clinton, or her State Department staffers, are smart enough to understand the essential sterility of the debate over the role of social media in recent uprisings in the Middle East. This is a debate in which the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov have become ever shriller (and ever more reliant on counter-factuals) in attempting to downplay the role of online media in events on the ground in countries such as Egypt, even as protesters themselves hailed the importance of Facebook and Twitter in enabling them to spread information about demonstrations.

There is a debate currently under way in some circles about whether the internet is a force for liberation or repression. But I think that debate is largely beside the point. Egypt isn’t inspiring people because they communicated using Twitter. It is inspiring because people came together and persisted in demanding a better future. Iran isn’t awful because the authorities used Facebook to shadow and capture members of the opposition. Iran is awful because it is a government that routinely violates the rights of its people.

Clinton repeatedly refers to “connection technologies”, emphasising that it is what people do when they connect that it important, not the technologies that enables the connection. Calling the internet the “public space of the 21st century”, Clinton says

The goal is not to tell people how to use the internet any more than we ought to tell people how to use any public square, whether it’s Tahrir Square or Times Square. The value of these spaces derives from the variety of activities people can pursue in them, from holding a rally to selling their vegetables, to having a private conversation. These spaces provide an open platform, and so does the internet.

Incidentally, the best account I’ve seen of how connectivity facilitates direct political action in dictatorships is from US sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who in a recent, excellent piece on the social media/Middle East revolution debate discusses, inter alia, how “social media is best at solving a societal-level prisoner’s dilemma in which there is lack of knowledge about the depth and breadth of the dissent due to censorship and repression and a collective-action barrier due to suppression of political organisation”.

Clinton, of course, is unable to get away without addressing WikiLeaks. But discussion of government transparency in the WikiLeaks context is, for Clinton, “a false debate. Fundamentally, the WikiLeaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase.” That is, WikiLeaks isn’t really about the internet, but about a crime. Clinton then goes on to explain that the idea of complete government transparency is unworkable, and that diplomats do a great deal of good work that couldn’t go ahead without secrecy. All of which we’ve heard before, naturally.

The US Government’s ability to protect America, to secure the liberties of our people, and to support the rights and freedoms of others around the world depends on maintaining a balance between what’s public and what should and must remain out of the public domain. The scale should and will always be tipped in favor of openness, but tipping the scale over completely serves no one’s interests

Clinton goes on to make a couple of further points that are of relevance to WikiLeaks. She concludes her WikiLeaks-specific comments by saying:

There were reports in the days following these leaks that the United States government intervened to coerce private companies to deny service to WikiLeaks. That is not the case. Now, some politicians and pundits publicly called for companies to dissociate from WikiLeaks, while others criticised them for doing so. Public officials are part of our country’s public debates, but there is a line between expressing views and coercing conduct. Business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own values or policies regarding WikiLeaks were not at the direction of the Obama administration.

Secretary Clinton also nominates China, Burma, Cuba, Vietnam and Syria as examples where online free speech is restricted and those seeking to express themselves are suppressed — an approach she calls “unsustainable”. She goes on to laud the United States’s own approach to freedom of speech, declaring it is the only workable approach online. “The United States does restrict certain kinds of speech in accordance with the rule of law and our international obligations. We have rules about libel and slander, defamation, and speech that incites imminent violence. But we enforce these rules transparently, and citizens have the right to appeal how they are applied. And we don’t restrict speech even if the majority of people find it offensive.”

Peter Fray

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