Hillary Clinton champions Internet freedom, but cautions on WikiLeaks

In a policy address, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls Internet freedom of expression a vital agent of change. But security is still important, she adds, calling WikiLeaks documents 'stolen.'

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers her speech, Internet Rights And Wrongs: Choices & Challenges In A Networked World, on Tuesday, at George Washington University in Washington.

Shucking her governmental surroundings for the halls of academia, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a tightly-scripted speech Tuesday on the power, promise, and perils of the Internet, a force whose potential to influence world affairs has been evident in the pro-democracy movement sweeping the Middle East.

In a multi-layered speech at George Washington University, Secretary Clinton also took the opportunity to clearly state the Obama administration position on the WikiLeaks saga, calling the leaked documents "stolen" and saying their publication raises serious questions about how to balance freedom of speech with legitimate security needs.

"Without security, liberty is fragile," she said. "Without liberty, security is oppressive."

Clinton’s speech, titled “Internet rights and wrongs: choices and challenges in a networked world,” was framed with a compelling account of the vital role of “connection” technology, as she dubbed it, in bringing about social and political change in Tunisia and Egypt.

She also dwelt on the repressive governments that have attempted to squelch Internet freedoms as a means to hold back free political expression, ticking off a laundry list of offenders. This rogue’s gallery includes everyone from Cuba – currently in the throes of trying to replace a genuine Internet with a government-controlled “intranet” – to the “awful” Iran as it cracks down on protesters and uses social media to hunt down its opponents.

Calling the Internet the “public space” of the future – a vital, global town square in which everyone shares an equal interest – Clinton enumerated all the reasons that freedom of expression must be the overriding ethos of this worldwide landscape. The cure for hate speech, she said, is “more speech,” not suppressed speech. She also described what she called the ultimate futility of a separation between the economic Internet and the “everything else Internet.”

Without question, the speech was an opportunity for the US to deliver a forceful message as the turmoil in the Middle East continues to unfold, says intellectual property attorney Scott Austin, a partner in the Miami office of Gordon & Rees and a consultant for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the governing body for Internet protocols.

Leadership role for US

The speed at which the Internet is evolving, says Mr. Austin, providing new opportunities and challenges, means that “the questions we need to be asking are as important as the answers.” With the Internet governing body based in California, he adds, the US by default is in a global leadership role, making it all the more important to define the territory moving forward.

Not that any single entity can encompass such a wide-ranging and powerful communication tool, he says, because of its decentralized structure.

The 50-minute speech was also an opportunity for the US to weigh in on a event that has been a thorn in the discussion over freedom of speech since it began, namely the WikiLeaks document release, says Depauw University communications professor Kevin Howley. [Editor's note: original version of this story misspelled Kevin Howley's name.]

He noted the “surprisingly small” amount of mainstream attention given to the fact that WikiLeaks was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize two weeks ago.

Clinton called the leaked documents “stolen,” as surely as if they had been snatched from a top-secret safe and spirited out in a briefcase, carefully separating them from the issue of freedom of speech.

“This Clinton analysis is important in that it gives us insight to how the government will approach such leaks going forward,” adds DePauw University media expert Jeffrey McCall.

However, downplaying the connection between the WikiLeaks documents and the issue of free speech is clearly obscuring their true impact, says Moez Limayem, associate dean for research and graduate programs at University of Arkansas.

Documents fueled change

A Tunisian, he was in that country when the unrest began. The leaked documents provided key fuel for the pro-democracy movement, he says.

“People everywhere were talking about two things that were clear from the documents,” he says. First, they provided clear evidence of massive corruption in the country’s leadership. “It called them a mafia,” he says.

The diplomatic cables also revealed to the Tunisians that the US was not behind their government, “so they thought perhaps it would not be so hard after all to get rid of them with protests.”

A political movement takes two things, he says, “hunger and anger.” The WikiLeaks documents provided the fuel for both, he adds, hunger for change and anger at the abuses of power.

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