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Global Viewpoint

The real challenge for Internet freedom? US hypocrisy. And there's no app for that.

Secretary Clinton's speech on Internet freedom was full of good news. The US has a more grown-up view of the complexities of Internet freedom and its importance. The bad news was in what Clinton didn't address: the role US foreign policy and US companies play in Internet oppression.

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Another piece of good news is the State Department's reluctance to take a stand in the brewing debate of whether the Internet is a tool for liberation or oppression (Clinton characterized this debate as “largely beside the point”). Clearly, it's a tool for both; the degree to which it's liberating or oppressing often depends on the political and social context – and not on the individual characteristics of a given Internet technology. It's reassuring to see Clinton strike a reasonable balance between cyber-utopianism and cyber-pessimism; adopting a cyber-realist posture and treating the Internet as it is (and not how we would like it to be) is the right way forward.

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Bad news: What Clinton didn't say

The bad news is that Clinton's speech is as important for the subjects that it has avoided. It's these omissions that tell us far more about the progress (or lack thereof) in how the US government thinks about a complex subject like Internet freedom.

Unfortunately, there was barely any mention of the role that America's own companies play in suppressing Internet freedom. Presumably, it's quite embarrassing for Clinton that Narus – an American company now owned by Boeing – supplied Egypt with technology that allowed it to spy on Internet users. Or that just two months ago the State Department gave an innovation award to another American company – Cisco – even though the latter provided some of the key ingredients for China's draconian system of Web controls.

Then, there is the thorny issue of our growing dependance on companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google as the providers of digital infrastructure that makes cyber-activism possible. Clinton was right to acknowledge that the Internet is “the public space of the 21stcentury” – but today this space feels and looks more like a shopping mall than a community playground.

The striking impression one gets from watching the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia is that these revolts happened not because of Facebook, Twitter, and Google – but in spite of them. While their services were widely used by activists on the ground, the parent companies have been extremely quiet. And for a good reason: They all have global business interests and eye expansion abroad. Being seen as the digital equivalents of The Voice of America is bound to create additional liabilities for them in important markets like Russia or China.

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