Netizens, Chinese Government Respond To Clinton's Speech

By Mackie Jimbo

Hillary Clinton delivered a highly anticipated speech on internet freedom yesterday, in which she discussed five essential freedoms that the U.S., and the world, need to strengthen for all internet users. (Full text can be found here.) The speech generated several responses from the media, academics, bloggers, and Twitterers.

The Wall Street Journal gives "kudos to Hillary Clinton" for her activist approach--dubbed the new Clinton Doctrine--to expanding global Internet freedom. The author laments the Obama administration's weak initiatives for democracy development abroad and posits that if Clinton is able to turn policy into practice, "she will have taken her Administration in a notably better direction."

The Huffington Post's technology and innovations editor, Jose Antonio Vargas, hailed the speech as "the most important speech about internet freedom delivered by a top U.S. official." Vargas argues that Clinton's speech was significant not only for its vision, but also for its underlying message of female empowerment: "What makes it all the more notable is the fact that it was given by arguably the most recognizable female political figure in the world."

Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices and research fellow at Harvard Law's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, applauds the ideals and values Clinton espoused in the speech, but wonders whether these ideals can be translated into concrete action. While Clinton focused on censorship as the main threat to internet freedom, Zuckerman argues that other challenges, such as digital divides, language barriers, and parochialism, will have to be taken into account as well.

Adam Thierer, President of the Progress & Freedom Foundation and blogger for the Technology Liberation Front, observes a notable shift in Clinton's views on the internet from 10 years ago. In response to tales of her husband's marital infidelity spreading over the Internet, Clinton questioned the Web's importance because of its lack of editing or gatekeeping functions. But now, as Thierer explains, Clinton "has come a long way, so much so that she is now defending technologies--and is apparently willing to even subsidize technologies--that will allow citizens to evade 'gatekeepers' of all sorts."

Clinton's speech did not receive all rave reviews. Evgeny Morozov, a Foreign Policy contributing editor, blasts Clinton's archaic Cold War rhetoric and incoherent views on cyberwarfare. He also disagrees with her "anachronistic view" of authoritarianism and censorship, positing that "if we keep this discussion as only a censorship issue, we are unlikely to solve it." Overall, Morozov is "disappointed" by the speech's lack of depth and unsophisticated analysis.

The Twittersphere was also abuzz after Clinton's speech. Surprisingly, a large number of tweets came from China, under the topic #netfreedom. (Perhaps many Chinese citizens are interested in hearing Clinton's take on Google China.) While most were simply re-tweeting links to the speech (which is very significant in itself), some offered their own insight. One Chinese Twitterer in Beijing wrote, "Hillary is so courageous!" Another tweeted, "Many Chinese people don't care about Internet freedom." Despite these conflicting assessments, it is clear that Clinton's speech has already impacted both the national and international debates.

Update: The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a formal statement in response to the speech, dismissing Clinton's comments about Internet restrictions in China. Ma Zhaoxu, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Clinton's remarks were "a far cry from the truth" and could damage bilateral ties between the two countries. More on the Chinese government's response here and here.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/01/netizens-chinese-government-respond-to-clintons-speech/34027/