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February 01, 2011

Human Rights Groups Urge Secretary Clinton to Bring “Freedom to Connect” Vision to Life

Washington, DC – A year after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the “freedom to connect” to be a Fifth Freedom, as important to human liberty as the Four Freedoms Franklin D. Roosevelt championed seven decades ago, human rights leaders are calling on her to take crucial steps to make that vision a reality.  In a letter to Secretary of Clinton, Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino and Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth urged the administration to reaffirm America’s commitment to internet freedom, to engage internet and communications technology sector leaders in this effort, and to expand programs to support netizens around the world, such as those in Egypt who have used the Internet to organize protests in support of calls for reform. “The bold vision you set out a year ago of a world with ‘one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all’ continues to inspire. We urge you to do all you can to make that vision a reality,” wrote Massimino and Roth. The letter noted that the year since Secretary Clinton delivered her speech has brought new and increasingly complex challenges to the vision of Internet freedom she articulated. Belarus and Hungary have adopted restrictive laws designed to impose on new media the same restrictions they have placed on traditional media. Around the globe, abusive anti- blasphemy laws—promoted under the guise of combating religious intolerance—are increasingly being used to justify censorship. In Russia, authorities have used antipiracy laws to curb dissent, effectively shuttering a number of independent media and nongovernmental organizations. Government pressures, most recently in Indonesia which professes to be cracking down on online pornography, led Research In Motion (RIM) to filter search content, leaving Blackberry users largely in the dark about RIM’S decision-making process and implications for user privacy and security. Within the United States, Massimino and Roth wrote that WikiLeaks’ publication of classified government information prompted Senator Joseph Lieberman to question Amazon.com’s hosting of Wikileaks’ content. The two acknowledge that while there is understandable concern about the exposure of classified information, Senator Lieberman’s statements reflected a lack of concern for the negative impacts on freedom of expression and the precedent it would set for those governments that have aggressive Internet censorship and surveillance policies to silence dissent. Similarly, the letter noted that Secretary Clinton’s warning that companies must be responsible has been interpreted by some as a retreat from the principles you outlined last year and, if left unaddressed, could compromise the ability of the United States government to lead the world toward the vision of Internet freedom she articulated last year. To address these concerns, Roth and Massimino outlined four recommendations designed to bring Secretary Clinton’s Freedom to Connect vision to life, including:
  • Reaffirm the U.S. commitment to Internet freedom. In particular, the Obama Administration  should take the opportunity to clarify that U.S. government concerns about WikiLeaks will not trump its interest in defending freedom of expression and will not be used to justify press restrictions, abusive use of criminal and civil discovery procedures against social media companies and their clients, or to expand criminal liability to recipients and publishers of information.
  • Convene a high-level summit of CEOs in the Internet and communications technology sector and personally urging them to operationalize your vision. Massimino and Roth welcomed Secretary Clinton’s endorsement last year of the Global Network Initiative, of which Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch are founding members, as a mechanism to promote real accountability and transparency. They asked Secretary Clinton continue to promote corporate membership in the Global Network Initiative as a way for companies to demonstrate their commitment to the principles of privacy and free expression, their willingness to be held accountable for upholding these principles in practice, and their desire to adopt responsible and transparent decision-making policies. They also asked her to work with Congress to fashion requirements to ensure that companies take these steps.
  • Ensure greater alignment of U.S. trade and investment policies with Internet freedom priorities by ensuring that trade and investment reports include information on Internet freedom restrictions. This could include ensuring that Foreign Service and commercial officers receive training on Internet freedom, and that the U.S. government advises U.S. companies abroad facing government demands that would limit or compromise their services.
  • Continue and expand programs to support netizens around the world, and improve access to and innovation in technology that will promote user safety and security. The State Department has begun to make important investments in a variety of initiatives to promote Internet freedom, wisely recognizing that there are multiple challenges that require a variety of responses. Massimino and Roth hope that these efforts will continue and will yield results as expeditiously as possible. The recently announced request for proposals holds the potential to carry this work forward, with the promise of $30 million in support for projects and services to advance the cause of Internet freedom. They urged Secretary Clinton to make grants under this program expeditiously and to ensure that the  bulk of the funds are used, as Congress intended, to support the development and deployment of technologies designed to help Internet users in closed societies gain free and safe access to the Internet. They also hope that the administration will find a way to educate policymakers, civil society, and others about the effectiveness of those efforts. The administration can also take other steps to assist netizens abroad. For example, the State Department could further work with the Treasury Department’ s Office of Foreign Assets Control to identify and relax restrictions on valuable new technologies when they unnecessarily impede activists’ ability to use them.