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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We shouldn't expect these companies to always err on the side of protesters but we should nudge them to behave more responsibly. For example, it's not very helpful for the US government to provide activists with tools to access the Web anonymously if they can't use services like Facebook using pseudonyms. Facebook's tough stance on pseudonyms often leads to rather curious situations: In December 2010 Facebook temporarily suspended the account of the Russian jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, demanding that he present them with a scanned copy of his passport – perhaps, not an easy thing to email from a Siberian prison.
US hypocrisy threatens Internet freedom
And yet the toughest unacknowledged challenge to the future of the “Internet Freedom Agenda” may come from within the US government. While it's wonderful that so many young activists can use the Web for protest, the reality is that in all too many cases they will be using it to fight against the very dictators that the US has supported for decades. As such, Washington will often find itself in a rather unpleasant position of training Arab bloggers to oppose the local police forces that Washington itself has armed and trained.
One would need to be extremely naïve to believe that the US-made social networks will always be mightier than the US-made swords. At worst, the State Department may be feeding these youthful activists the false hopes that their grievances will take precedence over the grievances of the pro-US dictators that Washington supports. Clearly, the right thing to do is not to stop supporting cyber-activists but to stop supporting their opponents.
The danger here is that Washington's noble and idealistic push to promote Internet freedom may serve as yet another excuse not to reexamine and correct the deeply cynical realpolitik foundations of US foreign policy.