March 24, 2010 — Google's announcement that it has stopped censoring results from its Chinese search engine has captured global attention, but developments on the Internet freedom front are coming fast and furious. In recent months, the U.S. administration removed sanctions on Internet-related exports to Iran, Sudan, and Cuba; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an important speech on cyberfreedom; and Congress gave funding assistance to cyberdissidents in Iran and China. This week the Senate will launch a Global Internet Freedom Caucus, and more such efforts are likely in coming months. All this is premised on the hypothesis that more Internet freedom leads to more political freedom. Does it?
Autocracies certainly seem to think so. During last year's protests in Iran, the regime not only blocked opposition Web sites and engaged in online efforts to track down dissidents, but also slowed down all Internet service throughout the country. China famously censors Web sites through the so-called "Great Firewall," and other countries—including Tunisia, Burma and Cuba—have followed Beijing's lead.
Many dissidents agree that the Internet has the potential to help open closed societies. Ahead of the 2004 Orange Revolution, the Ukrainian student group Pora used cell phones, text messages, and Internet communications to organize tens of thousands of protestors. Last year, millions—including the American president—saw the YouTube video of Neda Agha-Soltan's brutal murder in the streets of Tehran.
In supporting Internet freedom, the U.S. is placing a bet—essentially the same wager it made during the Cold War—that supporting access to information and encouraging the free exchange of ideas is good for America. And indeed, by making new tools available to mass publics overseas—from offshore servers and satellite Internet service to anonymous software and social networking sites—the U.S. can provide the platforms through which human rights, freedom of speech and other universal values can be freely debated and discussed.
At the same time, we must understand the limitations and complications that surround these efforts. Supporting Internet freedom represents one tool in the kit, but is no panacea, as current conditions in Iran and other Web-suppressing countries demonstrate so vividly. In addition, there is often a tension between cybersecurity, which depends on knowing who is doing what online, and cyberfreedom, which relies on anonymous activity. Americans both want online users to work free of a repressive regimes' watchful eyes and ensure that we are not the target of Internet-coordinated terrorist plots.
The U.S. could play a greater role in two areas in particular. First, the government and private sector can expand their efforts to establish international norms governing the use of cyberspace, attempting thereby to inculcate freedom of expression and basic human rights in online behavior. This effort should include bringing onboard our allies and partners who at times engage in their own forms of censorship.
Second, the U.S. can take more active steps to provide the hardware and software that would enable such freedom to flourish. Along the lines of recent legislation, and as suggested by Secretary of State Clinton, these efforts could include providing anonymizing and encryption software to dissidents, expanding local language tools (such as photo and social networking sites) that enable communications with the outside world, training social activists and diplomatic personnel in the use of Internet technologies, and urging companies to protect dissident accounts and identities.
All of these efforts must be coupled with old-fashioned diplomacy. When regimes crack down on online dissidents—as they will continue to do—the U.S. should be prepared to advocate for their rights and, when necessary, their release from prison. When regimes use the Internet to actively target protesters, organizations or other governments, America should be ready to take a stand.
We are just beginning to think through the ways in which the U.S. should integrate Internet freedom with other elements of American foreign policy. Nothing in this debate is wholly straightforward, but policy makers and their private-sector counterparts should attempt to coalesce—soon—around a common strategy. The autocracies have figured out their way forward on this issue. We must do so as well.