Opinion

Web's identity crisis: Tool of freedom or repression?

From Twitter to WikiLeaks, we must balance openness and safety.

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The same Internet that has empowered freedom-starved people across the Middle East to unseat despots is the same one that enabled Julian Assange, with just a keystroke on his WikiLeaks site, to put countless lives at risk through the dissemination of thousands of stolen, classified diplomatic cables.

While social-networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr have given citizen-journalists in Tripoli, Libya, and Cairo the ability to organize protests and report developments in real time, the Web itself has become a haven for child pornographers, human traffickers, and identity thieves. The threat of cyberterrorism – the use of the Net to bring down entire economic sectors – is ominous and real.

The tensions inherent in the Web are now exploding on the world stage, catching policy actors largely by surprise. Can governments strike the right balance between promoting a free flow of information while rightly guarding their – and our – privacy? This balance is hard. There is no "app" for Web freedom.

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Profound changes in communication

The Web has changed human communications in ways as profound as the printing press did.

Every day, from the high-rise office suites of Chicago to hand-held smart phones in Paris to remote villages connected by dial-up, billions of business and personal transactions are facilitated by an Internet connection that for most people didn't even exist just 15 years ago.

We are able to connect with friends and relatives, forming and deepening relationships that otherwise wouldn't exist. Millions of us work in ways, and in entire fields of endeavor, that we could not even have imagined a decade ago.

More than a year ago, I suggested that the Nobel Peace Prize be awarded not to a person but to Twitter, for its positive role in inspiring the Iranian uprising that followed the shooting death of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, who was killed while watching nonviolent protests of the disputed Iranian elections.

The dark side

But what happens when the global expression of dissent by a citizen-journalist morphs into the intentional spread of stolen documents whose exposure may well put lives at risk or jeopardize the success of a delicate hostage negotiation?

What of the fact that, according to the International Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 89 countries have no law at all on child pornography? With the advent of the Internet, the commercial sexual exploitation of children has become a multibillion-dollar industry that ignores all international borders.

Then there is abuse of the Web by repressive states themselves. The Iranian regime was able to put down the peaceful Green Movement of 2009 by stalking dissidents online, tracking their profiles, sifting their messages, and then attacking them in a bloody house-to-house crackdown by the Revolutionary Guard.

The challenge for policymakers

How well is Washington advancing the Web's promises while avoiding its perils? In a speech last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wisely recommended a light touch, suggesting the existence of what she called a "freedom to connect." The Internet "has become the public space of the 21st century – the world's town square, classroom, marketplace, coffeehouse, and nightclub." Our goal, she said, is not to tell people how to use the Web or any other public square, "whether it's Tahrir Square or Times Square." The town square itself, after all, merely provides a place for people to act; by itself, it has no agenda.

Ultimately, too, any restrictions imposed by governments will always be contingent on the ingenuity of ever-more-sophisticated Web users in using evolving technology to evade the limits – and on the fundamental incompatibility of vital e-commerce within a closed society.

Policymakers, diplomats, and military officials must harness the Internet's profound possibilities while managing its capabilities to destroy innocent people and harm democracies throughout the world.

Mark Pfeifle was deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and global outreach at the National Security Council from 2007 to 2009. He is vice president at S4 Inc. in Arlington, Va.

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