U.S. Department of State
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael H. Posner
Speech at the State of the Net Conference
January 17, 2012
Internet Freedom and the Digital Earthquake of 2011
Thank you for inviting me. Actually, the truth is that I invited myself because I care so much about these issues. And Jerry Berman and Tim Lordan of the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee were gracious to allow me to speak with you.
I am here to speak about Internet freedom as a foundation for the 21st Century human rights agenda. It is a pleasure to be joined by Christine Varney, a lawyer’s lawyer who is much missed inside the Obama administration. And I see here in the audience a large number of friends from Congress, from corporations and from NGOs who have all helped to map out smart and principled Internet policies for our government. They have also helped shape policies for socially responsible companies to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms online. Together, we aim to preserve the promise of the Internet as we know it, and as Gary said, in the face of growing threats to the freedom and integrity of the global network.
This past year has highlighted the promise and the peril of the Internet as a transformative tool both for human expression and for repression. So I would like to look back at the lessons learned from the digital earthquake of 2011, and offer a few thoughts on the way forward.
It was almost exactly a year ago, on January 15, that Tunisian president Zine Ben Ali boarded a plane in Tunis with his family and departed for Saudi Arabia. Twenty-seven days later, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned. Eight months later, Moammar Gaddafi was gone. A month after that, Yemen’s President Saleh announced his resignation. Time Magazine named the “Protestor” as its Person of the Year in 2011.
The Arab Awakening has been like a geopolitical earthquake sending aftershocks rumbling around the world. Repressive regimes trembled at the power of people connected, and redoubled their attempts to crack down. They did it by jailing bloggers, hijacking Facebook pages, and, in the case of Iran, requiring cybercafés to install surveillance cameras. They managed to buy sophisticated technologies to sniff out digital dissidents and silence them.
Meanwhile, some governments are trying to impose national and international restrictions that would cripple the exercise of human rights online. They are using terms like, quote, “information security” and “internet management” to try to justify repression. We must protect the free flow of information and also the integrity of the network. By that I mean the interoperability of the network both in the technical sense – the ability of the cables and servers that transfer data to talk to each other — and in the sense that countries must not isolate their citizens inside national intranets. Whether you call this a “halal Internet” or a “hate-free Internet,” it’s a digital bubble. It’s locking people inside a world of government-controlled content and cutting them off from rest of the world.
These trends are not news to most of you, or to us, either. But they are intensifying. It’s been almost exactly two years since my boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave her first major speech on Internet freedom at the Newseum. She made history by declaring two things that seem glaringly obvious now: First, that the universal human rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association apply online as they do offline; and second, that promoting those rights online must be a U.S. foreign policy priority. Since then she has consistently warned that protecting human rights, and intellectual property rights, and the ability of law enforcement officials to stop online crime and cyber stability and security will be challenging — but essential.
The Arab Awakening has upped the stakes further, most of all for activists trying to change repressive regimes from within.
People are using technology as a battering ram against the walls of fear and isolation that dictatorships erect to keep their populations quiescent. In country after country where governments have controlled nearly every aspect of life, people are demanding openness and accountability, as well as jobs and opportunity, using old ways and new ways to make themselves heard. They’ve done it online, and by risking life and limb on the streets; they’ve done it in song and text message, and in videos smuggled across borders when the Internet is turned off.
It turns out that two billion networked users are nearly impossible to silence.
In my world, the world of human rights, this new capacity for instant communication and participation has created an unprecedented dynamic. Let me give you an example. Last week in Syria, Arab League Human Rights monitors complained — unofficially — that they were not being permitted to view protests or interview demonstrators or travel freely to observe events. Yet that same day, anyone with an Internet connection could watch horrific footage on YouTube of wounded protestors in Syria who appeared to be dying on camera.
Syria is not having a Facebook revolution or a Twitter revolt or a YouTube winter. Syria is having a mass outbreak of courage. Tens of thousands of demonstrators know they risk arrest, torture and death if they take to the streets. But they’re doing it anyway. Day after day. Their courage does not emanate from any digital device. It comes from knowing that they are not alone.
So yes, the Internet is empowering. Yet we agree with Vincent Cerf, who wrote in an op-ed piece last month that Internet access is not itself a human right. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are human rights. Technology can enable those rights. Technology is not a substitute for political organizing or advocacy or persuasion. The Internet does not bring people into the street. Grievances do. The Internet did not spark the Arab Spring. Injustice did. It’s worth noting that the Arab Spring did not start because of Twitter. It started because of the heartbreaking decision by one vegetable vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, to set himself ablaze.
Connective technologies are powerful tools for strengthening and amplifying the bonds between people and organizations — for good and for ill. Last year, they enabled terrorists to recruit, and they enabled global cooperation to solve a myriad of human problems by transcending time zones, borders and even language barriers. The same connective technologies that enabled teenage bullies to orchestrate the persecution of their victims also enabled Russian activists to monitor parliamentary elections and then organize huge street demonstrations protesting the unfairness of those elections.
But let me be clear about U.S. policy: We don’t promote Internet freedom or connective technologies as a means of promoting “regime change.” We promote the freedoms of expression, association and assembly online and offline because these universal freedoms are the birthright of every individual. Human rights and human dignity are not bestowed upon people by groups or governments, and no government should feel empowered to deny them. It is up to every individual — and therefore the people of every country — to decide how to exercise them.
Let me state for the record that international law applies to online behavior. Full stop. We do not need to reinvent international human rights law, or our enduring principles, to account for the Internet. No deed is more evil — or more noble — when it is committed online rather than offline. You can’t sell child pornography in Farragut Square or Tahrir Square, and you can’t sell it on the Internet, either. You can’t break into a theater and steal the movie reels and you can’t steal movies online, either. You can’t beat up and gag a peaceful protestor and you can’t jail her for a blog post criticizing a government policy, either.
Now, I said earlier that we agree that no one has a human right to any particular technology. But at the same time, we believe that creators and purveyors of technologies have a responsibility to respect human rights through their products and their practices. Moreover, the responsibility of corporations to respect human rights extends far beyond the creators of a given technology. It is the responsibility of every company. Last year, in a landmark move, the U.N. Human Rights Council recognized this corporate responsibility by endorsing John Ruggie’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
But of course the challenge is always how to live out those principles in real time. Today, we’re all living a fishbowl, 24/7 live on webcam. Any one of us may face public scrutiny for any decision we make. It’s instant scrutiny. And most of us are still learning the new rules for life on webcam. That applies to politicians, and CEOs and also corporations. Companies are held to account by regulators and lawmakers, by the media and by individual consumers, who can now tarnish a global brand that took years to build with little more than a re-tweet.
Last year, we saw media coverage, and social media attention, and scrutiny from lawmakers about cases in which tech companies were alleged to have helped repressive regimes crack down on their own people: Social networking companies pressured to hand over information about political activists, cell phone signals used to locate dissidents, and especially evidence that the latest greatest surveillance technologies have been sold to Syria and Iran and Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya.
The moral issues in those cases are fairly cut-and-dry. But for tech companies, figuring out how to apply their principles to a messy and fast-changing world is much more complex — and getting even tougher.
Still, other industries have faced similar issues, and found a way forward. The smart companies have learned that the way to adapt to 24/7 scrutiny is to address the underlying issues before they find themselves in the crosshairs of controversy. Many have found it useful to collaborate with other companies — even their toughest competitors.
Companies in the extractive industries, which pull resources out of the ground in some of the most conflict-wracked places on earth, have faced up to this problem. They joined with governments and NGOs in a collaborative effort to minimize the risk of human rights abuses.
Private security contractors have faced up to the problem. More than two hundred of them have signed on to a new international code of conduct that addresses their use of force, and bans torture, sexual exploitation, human trafficking and forced labor.
Apparel companies have faced the challenge of curbing sweatshop practices in the global supply chains. A number of them have joined together with NGOs and universities to allow scrutiny of their factories by independent auditors.
So oil companies, garment makers and private security contractors are making money in hard places. Each has realized that one of the costs of doing business in those places is to assess the risks and to invest in developing principles, people and processes to address the human rights challenges they face.
Technology companies now must do the same. And since nearly every tech company depends on the Internet to operate, all have a special stake in protecting the freedom and integrity of the Net, as well as the human rights of their customers. Their young customers may turn out to be the Nelson Mandelas and the Vaclev Havels, the Bill Gates or the Steve Jobs of their generations.
Companies have a growing reputational interest in developing practical and credible ways to work together, and work with other key stakeholders, to address these challenges. That doesn’t mean that governments won’t consider sanctions or other means to prevent transfer of sensitive technologies to regimes that use them to violate human rights. Sanctions can be a valuable tool. The Commerce Department is investigating how technology made by a California company, called Blue Coat Systems, was diverted to Syria. The U.S. government is also committed to vigorous investigation of other allegations of dodging sanctions, whether directly or through middlemen. At the same time, we will continue, with international partners, to look at ways to make our sanctions smarter.
But sanctions are not a perfect solution. No regulatory regime can substitute for thoughtful, proactive practices by corporations that must be mindful of the ways their products are likely to be used or abused in the real world.
As Secretary Clinton said in The Hague last month, some companies come to the State Department and say, “Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.” But that is not a durable solution. Companies are best positioned to ask themselves the hard questions, and their answers will evolve. They must make their own decisions about how and where to do business in parts of the world where laws are opaque, resale channels are murky and human rights are often abused. And they must realize that their decisions can affect real people in real time.
We stand ready to help. We see companies tackling these issues best when they work together, and so we salute companies like Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft who have joined with NGOs, social investors and academic institutions to form the Global Network Initiative. Last month, a company called Websense that sells filtering software to companies joined the GNI. Websense has committed to making sure its software doesn’t end up being used by governments to censor.
For our part, those of us in government continue to work to turn our commitment to Internet freedom into reality — and in 2011 the U.S. and its international partners made a great deal of progress.
First, last year 34 nations of the OECD adopted a Recommendation on Internet Policy Making Principles. It includes strong language for the multi-stakeholder system of Internet governance and for maintaining an open Internet. The United States supports this approach first because it’s working, and second because it brings together the best of governments, the private sector and civil society to manage the network. And it keeps in place a system that has kept the Internet up and running for years, all over the world.
Second, 15 countries have now joined a group called the Coalition for Freedom Online, which was launched in The Hague last month. Secretary Clinton and I were there, and we were delighted to see the Coalition countries endorse a principled declaration and action plan. The coalition brings together governments, businesses, civil society and academics together to defend Internet freedom. The countries will share information and coordinate diplomatic efforts on a wide range of issues. They will stand up for the rights of netizens and cyber-activists. And these governments will work with tech companies on ways to promote respect for their customers’ human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Going forward, we believe this coalition can advocate for a free and open platform for the next generation of users. These users will come mainly from the developing world, and they need to be part of this conversation. So we were pleased to see such a diverse group of countries step up to promote Internet freedom – from Ghana to Mongolia, Kenya to Mexico. I ask all of you to support and help grow the Coalition for Freedom Online, as we will.
Third, to put muscle behind our policy, Secretary Clinton also announced in The Hague the creation of a Digital Defenders partnership that will help cyber-activists and netizens under threat. The United States and the Netherlands have committed funds to this initiative, and we hope others will as well.
Fourth, we continue to fund a broad range of advocacy, technological responses and training programs aimed at defending human rights online. The State Department and USAID have already spent over $70 million on projects ranging from developing better circumvention technologies and “panic buttons” for mobile phones to training activists in cyber self-defense. Our slogan is “old rights, new apps.” Congress has been extremely supportive and directed us to continue these programs. My team in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor will keep combing the digital landscape for opportunities to invest in people and projects that will make a difference for embattled activists working in the hard places.
So I want to thank each of you for your commitment to the vision of a world where people can enjoy more freedom, online and off. Technology and history converged in 2011 to bring momentous change. In 2012, we have the precious opportunity to harness that change to build a more open, prosperous and peaceful world.