'Internet Freedom' in the Age of Assange

From Egyptian Facebookers to WikiLeaks to China's Great Firewall, the State Department's efforts to promote an open global Internet just got a lot more complicated.

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."


Clinton sought to distance the State Department from individual American politicians who have called for Julian Assange's head. She made the point that the U.S. government did not pressure private companies like and Paypal to sever their ties with WikiLeaks.  Yet it is well known that these companies were influenced by State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh's letter on WikiLeaks, in which he wrote that the "violation of law is ongoing" as long as WikiLeaks continues to publish the leaked diplomatic cables. As Harvard legal scholar Yochai Benkler wrote in response to Tuesday's speech, the assertion that publication of the cables is illegal "is false, as a matter of constitutional law; but it is not in fact stated, it is merely implied by omission; this leaves room for various extralegal avenues that can be denied as not under your control to do the suppression work."

Concerns about extralegal actions by companies who can shut down controversial -- but arguably constitutionally protected -- speech before any court has even ruled on a publisher's guilt or innocence highlight how governments are not the only actors with a responsibility to make and uphold commitments to free expression and privacy.

Clinton was certainly right to highlight the fact that corporations running Internet platforms and telecommunications services have equally serious obligations to uphold universally recognized rights to free expression and privacy, particularly when governments fail to respect these rights.  Companies around the world face strong pressure to censor, monitor, and silence users and customers when it suits government interests. The Egyptian government's shutdown of Internet and mobile services could not have succeeded without the private sector's cooperation. Research In Motion, the owner of BlackBerry, has been asked by a range of governments to comply with surveillance requirements. Some activists are concerned that Facebook is making it easier for governments to track them down by enforcing terms of service requiring the use of real names, no matter where in the world you live.

It was thus encouraging that Clinton called on companies to join the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder effort by companies, socially responsible investors, human rights groups, and academics to help companies make and uphold such commitments. Unfortunately only Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have had the cojones (as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would put it) to join.

The State Department has come under fire from some members of Congress for not acting quickly enough to disburse $30 million earmarked by Congress for technologies designed to circumvent governments' censorship of the Internet. On the same day as Clinton's speech, Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a report slamming the State Department for failing to fund "circumvention tools" that help Internet users access blocked websites.

Clinton defended her department's more holistic approach in her speech, arguing that there is no "silver bullet" for Internet freedom. Because the threats to a free and open online public discourse are "increasingly complex," she said that the United States should support "a portfolio of technologies, tools, and training" to aid activists across the world.

It is also true, however, that many online activists around the world do not welcome U.S. money or its direct involvement in their struggle. The Tunisian blogger and activist Sami Ben Gharbia has written passionately about how U.S. government involvement in grassroots digital spaces can endanger those who are already vulnerable to accusations by nasty regimes of acting as foreign agents.

In a long blog post written last September, Ben Gharbia quoted the Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah -- who played an important role in toppling Hosni Mubarak's regime --  arguing that the United States should focus on getting its own policies right rather than get involved directly with specific movements on the ground.

"You don't need special programs and projects to help free the Internet in the Middle East," Fattah wrote. "Just keep it free, accessible and affordable on your side and we'll figure out how to use it."

The U.S. government's approach to the Internet remains full of problems and contradictions. In the same week that Clinton delivered this Internet freedom speech, the FBI was advocating for expanded government surveillance powers over social networking services and encrypted online communications tools like Skype. The Senate considered legislation giving the Department of Justice greater power to take down the domain names of "rogue" websites. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security mistakenly shut down 84,000 websites in a badly executed effort to seize the domain names of 10 child pornography websites -- prompting concerns about lack of due process and "collateral damage" for free speech inflicted by the administration's law enforcement tactics.

Still, the Obama administration's desire to champion a global "Internet freedom" agenda should be heartening for those that recognize the Internet's growing political and cultural importance. With Clinton's two "Internet freedom" speeches, and several statements by the president echoing support for the same ideas and principles, there is now a solid basis on which human rights activists, concerned citizens, and the global community of Internet users can push Washington to better align its actions with the values it claims to champion.

Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski


The Smiling Cleric's Revolution

Iran's optimistic reformers realize they've hit a dead end.

More than a decade before Iran's politically disaffected had launched the Green Movement -- much less the latest protests that broke out across the country on Feb. 14 and were brutally put down by police -- they had the optimistic and incremental reform movement lead by the "smiling cleric" and philosopher Mohammad Khatami. If the latter had worked according to plan, the former never would have been necessary. The reformers had hoped Iran would serve as a model of democratic governance for the rest of the Muslim world. Now they're taking their inspiration from the peaceful Arab uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Khatami was elected to two terms, beginning in 1997, with overwhelming support from young people and women, and he staked his tenure on the belief that the Islamic Republic could be peacefully transformed from within into a modern democracy. That era in the late 1990s came to be known as the "Tehran spring," an atmosphere of political openness then novel in the region. Civil society grew more confident, an independent press flourished, and reformists seemed ascendant within Iran's political system. Khatami promised Iranians that the Islamic system could rule more lawfully and that the regime had the ability and the obligation to offer its people greater freedoms.

That was the theory, at least. In practice, incremental reform proved a spectacular failure. When Khatami was in power, his ideas were repeatedly vetoed by conservatives in a government resistant to democracy, before being definitively crushed by the police-state rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the aftermath of Ahmadinejad's 2009 election as president, the regime imprisoned tens of prominent reformist leaders and humiliated them in televised show trials.

Khatami now finds himself swept up in a revolt that promises an altogether different and more volatile path to change. But where the Green Movement's other leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have confronted the regime from the outside, explicitly challenging its legitimacy, the former president craftily continues to play the "inside" game. While Mousavi and Karroubi assume the dissident mantle from the seclusion of their house arrest in Tehran -- and now face the prospect of a death-penalty trial if hard-line parliamentarians get their way -- Khatami plays the part of politician, though one with a fundamentally different goal from what he once had. If his original task was to use the Islamic Republic's political process to prove the system could work on its own terms, his new agenda is to use it to show that it cannot.

To that end, Khatami is busy working with other strategists in Tehran to lay the groundwork for a fresh challenge to the hard-line grip on power ahead of next year's parliamentary elections. He sparked a political controversyafter announcing at the end of December a list of preconditions for the reformists' participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The demands amounted to a wish list for the wholesale transformation of the Islamic Republic, and seemed designed to demonstrate precisely the sort of vital changes the system could not tolerate -- the release of political prisoners, the proper implementation of the Constitution, and freedom of association for political parties.

Khatami laced his statement with dire warnings about the current state of the Islamic Republic, sounding distinctly pessimistic about his demands being met. "Given the current direction things are going, it seems conditions will only become more difficult, the routes more closed, and restrictions more myriad," he said, according to a report on his personal website.

Within opposition circles, analysts and leaders unanimously read Khatami's gesture as a feint meant to draw out the system's authoritarian posture and hostility to even a peaceful reform agenda. "Khatami has been a government insider; he knows full well that no one is going to pay any attention to his demands," said Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former member of parliament now living in the United States.

Although Khatami's gambit is subversive at heart, its attempt to participate in the system is cautious compared with Mousavi's and Karroubi's open challenges to the regime's legitimacy. Hossein Karroubi, the dissident cleric's son, made the point forcefully in an email he sent me: "Whoever wants to betray the people and do business with the government is only bound to destroy himself."

But elements of the regime have already fallen victim to Khatami's ploy. Kayhan, the newspaper associated with Iran's supreme leader, responded to Khatami's announcement by denouncing him as a spy and traitor and calling for his execution. Other reports in the hard-line press attacked his tenure in government and mocked his "timid" political persona. Although predictable -- hard-liners have been targeting Khatami since he cited fraud as a factor in Ahmadinejad's reelection immediately after the 2009 vote -- the attacks seemed to be precisely what the former president sought to elicit. By refusing to hear the reasonable demands of a former head of government, the regime has discredited itself with the greater public.

"Khatami's move has broken up the politically stagnant atmosphere and was politically very astute," Ataollah Mohajerani, a former minister of culture and Islamic guidance under Khatami's government now living in London, told me. "The system immediately attacked him, and now the reformists can say that it will not allow them to participate. That frees them up to take another step."

Khatami's announcement, pitched more to establishment politicians than the public, did little to inspire the next-generation Iranians out protesting on Monday. But by proving the system could not take even basic steps required for living up to its own democratic principles, Khatami is working to attract a broader base of support for future civil disobedience. Although not all the protesters who have marched under the Green Movement banner share a single vision for Iran's political future, a consensus has emerged among opposition strategists that popular demonstrations need to be used to pressure the regime.

Mousavi and Karroubi called for Monday's protest in solidarity with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, gambling that Iranians would turn out despite months of Green Movement dormancy. But reformists still consider elections the most opportune occasion to remind Iranians that their civil rights are being violated. To that end, they are focusing on leveraging the 2012 parliamentary elections to topple the Islamic Republic.

The difficulty is finding a strategy that avoids both the passivity of a simple boycott and the legitimizing effect of trying to field candidates. "The Islamic Republic expects a boycott. Nothing would make it happier," said Mohammad Tahavori, a prominent Iranian journalist now based in Boston. "The third way is to mount a public campaign demanding people's right to a free election. This challenges people's criticism into a specific demand, one that grabs the public's attention and focuses on government accountability."

"People can be mobilized to show up at polling stations holding placards that say, 'We won't participate because our votes aren't counted,'" Mohajerani said. That's among the tactics reform leaders are discussing in their bid to transform the parliamentary vote into a platform for open dissent.

Iran's once-vibrant civil society will neither turn its back on politics and retreat entirely into the private sphere, nor respond to the government's violence in kind -- but it also won't extend its hand to the regime any longer. "A leader like Khatami may still believe that reform of the system is still possible in theory, were the government to properly abide by the Constitution," said Haghighatjoo. "But in practice, Khatami is aware that the system has led to a dead end."