Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's second annual "Internet freedom" speech on Tuesday showcased how the U.S. government is grappling with the question of what it means to be both a superpower and a democracy in the Internet age.
Describing the Internet as the "public space of the 21st century," she called the debate about whether the Internet is a force for liberation or oppression "beside the point." Whether this digital public space is used well or used badly, she noted, is the responsibility of each and every one of the world's 2 billion-plus Internet users -- alongside all governments who seek to regulate it and companies that build Internet technologies and platforms.
This presents a challenge that she admitted the United States government cannot meet on its own: "To maintain an Internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that will guide us, what rules exist and should not exist and why, what behaviors should be encouraged or discouraged and how."
Much has changed since Clinton's first "Internet freedom" speech, delivered in January 2010. Over the past year, Google has stopped censoring its search results in China. WikiLeaks published the Afghan War Logs and U.S. diplomatic cables stolen from a classified network by an Army private. Autocrats have been toppled in Egypt and Tunisia, and activists in the Middle East have set their sights on several more regimes.
These events highlight how the Internet is empowering a range of non-state actors in ways that challenge all governments' relationships with their citizens. Clinton's speech acknowledged this development, and reaffirmed the U.S. government's commitment to the free and open, globally interconnected Internet as a core component of its foreign policy.
Clinton acknowledged -- without naming specific cases -- the extent to which the United States and other democracies face their own unresolved dilemmas about the Internet age. These include the difficulty of balancing the legitimate needs for law enforcement and intellectual property protection with the imperative of protecting free expression, privacy and other civil liberties.
Her comments on WikiLeaks underscored how Washington is grappling with the disruptive implications of a globally interconnected digital network. Still, she said, "WikiLeaks does not challenge our commitment to internet freedom."