Internet Freedom: A Global Concern

785 views Published on 25th January 2010

The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet. When something happens in Haiti or Hunan, the rest of us learn about it in real time – from real people.

 

Amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. Just as steel can be used to build hospitals or machine guns, or nuclear power can either energize a city or destroy it, modern information networks and the technologies they support can be harnessed for good or for ill.

 

There are many networks in the world. Some aid in the movement of people or resources, and some facilitate exchanges between individuals with the same work or interests. But the internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. It’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, emails, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship.

 

Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks. They’ve expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world. And beyond this partition, viral videos and blog posts are becoming the samizdat of our day.

 

There are, of course, hundreds of millions of people living without the benefits of these technologies. In our world, as I’ve said many times, talent may be distributed universally, but opportunity is not. Promoting social and economic development in countries where people lack access to knowledge, markets, capital, and opportunity can be frustrating and sometimes futile work. In this context, the internet can serve as a great equalizer. By providing people with access to knowledge and potential markets, networks can create opportunities where none exist.

 

I’ve seen this firsthand in Kenya, where farmers have seen their income grow by as much as 30 percent since they started using mobile banking technology; in Bangladesh, where more than 300,000 people have signed up to learn English on their mobile phones; and in Sub-Saharan Africa, where women entrepreneurs use the internet to get access to microcredit loans and connect themselves to global markets.

 

Now, these examples of progress can be replicated in the lives of the billion people at the bottom of the world’s economic ladder. In many cases, the internet, mobile phones, and other connection technologies can do for economic growth what the Green Revolution did for agriculture. You can now generate significant yields from very modest inputs. And one World Bank study found that in a typical developing country, a 10 percent increase in the penetration rate for mobile phones led to an almost 1 percent increase in per capita GDP. To just put this into context, for India, that would translate into almost $10 billion a year.

 

A connection to global information networks is like an on-ramp to modernity. In the early years of these technologies, many believed that they would divide the world between haves and have-nots. But that hasn’t happened. There are 4 billion cell phones in use today. Many of them are in the hands of market vendors, rickshaw drivers, and others who’ve historically lacked access to education and opportunity. Information networks have become a great leveler, and we should use them together to help lift people out of poverty and give them a freedom from want.

 

Now, we have every reason to be hopeful about what people can accomplish when they leverage communication networks and connection technologies to achieve progress. But make no mistake – some are and will continue to use global information networks for darker purposes. Violent extremists, criminal cartels, sexual predators, and authoritarian governments all seek to exploit these global networks. Just as terrorists have taken advantage of the openness of our societies to carry out their plots, violent extremists use the internet to radicalize and intimidate. As we work to advance freedoms, we must also work against those who use communication networks as tools of disruption and fear.

 

Governments and citizens must have confidence that the networks at the core of their national security and economic prosperity are safe and resilient. Now this is about more than petty hackers who deface websites. Our ability to bank online, use electronic commerce, and safeguard billions of dollars in intellectual property are all at stake if we cannot rely on the security of our information networks.

 

Disruptions in these systems demand a coordinated response by all governments, the private sector, and the international community. We need more tools to help law enforcement agencies cooperate across jurisdictions when criminal hackers and organized crime syndicates attack networks for financial gain. The same is true when social ills such as child pornography and the exploitation of trafficked women and girls online is there for the world to see and for those who exploit these people to make a profit. We applaud efforts such as the Council on Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime that facilitate international cooperation in prosecuting such offenses. And we wish to redouble our efforts.

 

The freedom to connect to these technologies can help transform societies, but it is also critically important to individuals. I was recently moved by the story of a doctor – and I won’t tell you what country he was from – who was desperately trying to diagnose his daughter’s rare medical condition. He consulted with two dozen specialists, but he still didn’t have an answer. But he finally identified the condition, and found a cure, by using an internet search engine. That’s one of the reasons why unfettered access to search engine technology is so important in individuals’ lives.

 

Principles like information freedom aren’t just good policy, not just somehow connected to our national values, but they are universal and they’re also good for business.To use market terminology, a publicly listed company in Tunisia or Vietnam that operates in an environment of censorship will always trade at a discount relative to an identical firm in a free society. If corporate decision makers don’t have access to global sources of news and information, investors will have less confidence in their decisions over the long term. Countries that censor news and information must recognize that from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech. If businesses in your nations are denied access to either type of information, it will inevitably impact on growth.

 

Now, ultimately, this issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors. Information freedom supports the peace and security that provides a foundation for global progress. Historically, asymmetrical access to information is one of the leading causes of interstate conflict. When we face serious disputes or dangerous incidents, it’s critical that people on both sides of the problem have access to the same set of facts and opinions.

 

For companies, this issue is about more than claiming the moral high ground. It really comes down to the trust between firms and their customers. Consumers everywhere want to have confidence that the internet companies they rely on will provide comprehensive search results and act as responsible stewards of their own personal information. Firms that earn that confidence of those countries and basically provide that kind of service will prosper in the global marketplace. Those who lose that confidence of their customers will eventually lose customers.

 

We need to work toward a world in which access to networks and information brings people closer together and expands the definition of the global community. Given the magnitude of the challenges we’re facing, we need people around the world to pool their knowledge and creativity to help rebuild the global economy, to protect our environment, to defeat violent extremism, and build a future in which every human being can live up to and realize his or her God-given potential.

 

No nation, no group, no individual should stay buried in the rubble of oppression. We cannot stand by while people are separated from the human family by walls of censorship. Let us make these technologies a force for real progress the world over. Let us go forward together to champion these freedoms for our time, for our young people who deserve every opportunity we can give them.

 

Excerpted from US Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton’s remarks on Internet Freedom at the Newseum.


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