Clinton on Internet Freedom: Living by the Standards We Hold the World To

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has delivered a bold and -- given the context -- important speech today about freedom on the Web (available here).

It connects the dots between an open Internet, on the one hand, and political liberty, economic prosperity, and the crisis in Egypt and the Middle East, on the other.

Her major premise is that political liberty begets economic prosperity. Her minor premise is that, in the 21st century, protecting Internet openness is essential to maintaining a free society -- and thus is crucial to achieving economic well-being, as well.

The Internet is infinitely adaptable; many countries are betting that it can support a uniquely modern half-open, half-closed hybrid.

For decades, the major premise was up for debate. The dilemma was posed most sharply by the (apparent) flourishing of the Soviet Empire. Was freedom a luxury we could not afford? (Just ask Senator McCarthy.) Even after the Wall fell, there was still great hand-wringing over the rise of Asian city-states like Singapore, which married eye-popping export growth with canings for spitting gum on the street.

The good news is that the bloom is off the rose, on both scores. We live in an era when the social benefits of openness, even with an occasional challenge, seem more persuasive than ever. (See here for more.)

But for Secretary Clinton to make this point right now -- and center it around the Internet -- takes some chutzpah. Not least because hers is war of choice and not necessity.

To begin with, there is her take on WikiLeaks. It is, at bottom, that whoever stole the cables should be thrown in the brig. But everything else that happened should be regarded as the price of living in a free society. This is entirely fair -- and utterly refreshing, coming from the government official fourth in the line of succession to the President (not to mention the head of the agency most roiled by the cables' release).

More broadly, against a backdrop of overwhelming diplomatic tension about civil protests, she urges the international community to embrace the semi-anarchy of the Internet and social media. Yes, on balance, it looks like things are headed in a good direction, for Egyptians as well as Americans. But given the current climate, one could certainly forgive a sitting Secretary of State for letting the dust settle a bit before kicking up even more.

When it comes to communications technology, however, she does have the advantage of being on the right side of history.

To take one example -- not discussed in her speech -- consider the state of the Soviet telephone system just before the collapse of the USSR. Compared to Western Europe, the Soviet Union had far fewer phones per capita. Which was one reason (among many) for the sorry state of its economy.

Why?

Because in 1917, Soviet leadership decided to invest not in telephones, but in a system of loudspeakers all across the country: the quintessential one-way, centrally-controlled technology. And when they got around to building a phone system, all long distance lines had to go through Moscow, so they could be appropriately monitored.

Is Internet any different? Well, yes and no.

In a bricks-and-mortar world, the choice between open and closed, law versus tyranny, is pretty stark. If you half-nationalize a sugar refinery, don't be surprised if foreign direct investment dries up. All the way. Just as if you sometimes (but not always) disappear intellectuals for expressing dangerous political options, it should come as little shock that promising young engineers in your country view it as yet another reason to head to Menlo Park.

Presented by

Bruce Gottlieb is general counsel for The Atlantic. He was formerly chief counsel with the Federal Communications Commission and a staff writer at Slate, where he originated the Explainer column.

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