How noble is the Obama administration, pledging to support citizens in repressive regimes (many of which are run by US-backed thugs but why quibble with such details?):
Days after Facebook and Twitter added fuel to a revolt in Egypt, the Obama administration plans to announce a new policy on Internet freedom, designed to help people get around barriers in cyberspace while making it harder for autocratic governments to use the same technology to repress dissent.
The State Department’s policy, a year in the making, has been bogged down by fierce debates over which projects it should support, and even more basically, whether to view the Internet primarily as a weapon to topple repressive regimes or as a tool that autocrats can use to root out and crush dissent.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will lay out the policy in a speech on Tuesday, acknowledged the Internet’s dual role in an address a year ago, and administration officials said she would touch on that theme again, noting how social networks were used by both protesters and governments in the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries.
The State Department plans to finance programs like circumvention services, which enable users to evade Internet firewalls, and training for human rights workers on how to secure their e-mail from surveillance or wipe incriminating data from cellphones if they are detained by the police.
Though the policy has been on the drawing board for months, it has new urgency in light of the turmoil in the Arab world, because it will be part of a larger debate over how the United States weighs its alliances with entrenched leaders against the young people inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt.
Administration officials say that the emphasis on a broad array of projects — hotly disputed by some technology experts and human rights activists — reflects their view that technology can be a force that leads to democratic change, but is not a “magic bullet” that brings down repressive regimes.
“People are so enamored of the technology,” said Michael H. Posner, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. “People have a view that technology will make us free. No, people will make us free.”
Of course in reality Washington is highly selective in backing real transparency, as its continued attack on Wikileaks shows:
The Obama administration is stepping up its drive to promote Internet freedom, hoping that countries like Iran could be swept up by the same kind of Web-driven public demonstrations and political tumult that brought the regime in Egypt to its knees in a matter of weeks.
However, critics say that as the United States calls for unfettered and uncensored access to the Internet around the globe, the Obama administration is stepping on its own message by aggressively pursuing a criminal investigation into the activities of online publisher WikiLeaks and how it obtained hundreds of thousands of classified American government reports.
In an awkward bit of timing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to deliver a major speech on Internet freedom in Washington on Tuesday just hours after Justice Department lawyers are scheduled to be in federal court a few miles away in the first public courtroom showdown over the probe into WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Prosecutors are expected to urge a federal magistrate in Alexandria, Va., to uphold a court order requiring Twitter to turn over confidential information about the use of its services by three WikiLeaks supporters.
“This is an outrageous attack by the Obama administration on the privacy and free speech rights of Twitter’s customers – many of them American citizens,” Assange complained in a statement Monday. “More shocking, at this time, is that it amounts to an attack on the right to freedom of association, a freedom that the people of Tunisia and Egypt, for example, spurred on by the information released by Wikileaks, have found so valuable.”
“It’s a typical example of it’s right for thee but not for me,” said Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who recently signed on to advise Assange’s legal team.
“They’re perfectly happy to see all of Iran’s secrets disclosed, but they draw the line at their own. They’re perfectly happy to see open media in every other part of the world, but here they’re trying to close down media that has challenged them. It’s a clear double standard at work, and we’re going to expose that double standard.”
Obama administration officials insist there’s no conflict between promoting Web freedom abroad and enforcing U.S. laws regarding handling of confidential government data, like diplomatic cables and military reports.
“WikiLeaks is not about Internet freedom,” a senior State Department official told POLITICO Monday. “It’s not even an Internet issue. It’s about U.S. government property being stolen which is under investigation by the Justice Department. … The fact that the Internet was used to conduct the crime does not make it about Internet freedom.”
“WikiLeaks is about the unauthorized disclosure of classified information. It is not an exercise in Internet freedom,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said last month in a speech to students at the Washington Center . “It is about the legitimate investigation of a crime. It is about the need to continue to protect sensitive information while enabling the free flow of public information.”
Crowley, who has publicly blasted Assange as an “anarchist,” said those claiming hypocrisy are misunderstanding the kind of openness the United States is advocating.
“Transparency does not mean there are no secrets. Whether you are a government or a business, there is proprietary information that is vital to your day-to-day function. Coca-Cola has its secret formula. Google has its search algorithm. Their success is based on these secrets. As a government, we are no different,” Crowley said.
Washington Middle East and democracy experts have generally welcomed the U.S. call for uninterrupted access to Facebook, Twitter and the Internet. But they’ve also noted that talking about Web freedom is a lot simpler than untangling conflicted U.S. interests toward the current instability in the Middle East, that threatens both adversaries such as Iran, as well as strong allies as Yemen’s President Saleh, who has backed the fight against Al Qaeda.
“It’s a little bit easier to make democracy-promotion about letting everyone have access to Facebook than it is to confront directly the core elements of an allied police state,” Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski said. “It’s a good thing to be promoting access to Facebook – but it’s also a little easier to do than the other thing.”