Hillary Clinton's plan to topple dictators with an open Internet

The ouster of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia made it imperative for Hillary Clinton to lay out a US plan to keep the Internet open for people seeking freedom. But exactly how remains an open question.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said all the right things in a speech on Internet freedom today. She was modest in admitting that the US government didn’t have all the answers – or even know all the right questions to ask – in shaping an open Internet worldwide in the future.

She urged repressive regimes to consider the “dictator’s dilemma” – that when they restrict or harass Internet use it will only harm them and their country in the long run. She termed preserving a free and open Internet “one of the grand challenges of our time.”

The fall of autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt – with the possibility of more to come – came about at least in part because of online social media, from Twitter to Facebook to YouTube. The debate over just how crucial these new media were to the uprisings is just beginning. One could reasonably argue that outstanding coverage by Al Jazeera, in the form of traditional old-style televised reporting, played just as significant a role. As is often pointed out, the Egyptian protest continued on to a successful conclusion even after the government pulled the plug on Internet access.

But what’s already clear is that Internet’s role was real and significant. And now the Obama administration has begun to move beyond words to actions in promoting a free Internet worldwide. Clinton said that it will spend $20 million this year and $25 million next year funding a variety of programs, acting as a kind of venture capitalist to underwrite a number of approaches.

In recent days the State Department has set up its own Twitter feeds in Arabic and Farsi, and Clinton said a similar effort in Chinese will soon follow. She also pledged that monitoring and responding to Internet threats is now part of the State Department’s core mission.

That’s a start. More is needed. One key effort will be finding ways to help people get around fire walls that governments place on their Internet users, freeing their citizens to find out what the rest of the world is saying and doing. Individuals need to know how to set up secure e-mail accounts and how to defend their websites against denial of service attacks.

No one should assume that the Internet will somehow automatically be a force for good. As former journalist and savvy Internet watcher Rebecca MacKinnon points out, while King George VI used the relatively new medium of radio to rally Britain during World War II, Joseph Goebbels in Germany used it to spread Nazi propaganda. Technology plays no favorites in a war of ideas.

Twitter and other online social media themselves don’t represent a “silver bullet” that will pull down dictators and solve the world’s problems. That’s still up to courageous individuals.

But the Internet does represent an important tool – in spreading that courage, in assembling crowds – that must be valued and protected. A race is on between those trying to restrict online access – or infiltrate it and turn it into a means of repression – and those that prize openness.

The administration has been right to listen, test, and experiment. But the move to bigger, bolder actions shouldn’t wait forever.

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