The wrong message for Clinton to give on Thursday would be something to the effect of: "Never fear, netizens of China, America is here to free you!"
Even worse, related variants, such as: "Never fear, netizens of internet-censoring nations, America is here to save you, galloping in on our trusty steed Google, brandishing our mighty weapon, Twitter!!"
My dream speech would be about how the Internet poses a challenge to all governments and most companies (except those companies like Google whose business is built around that challenge). I would call on all governments to work together with citizens, companies and each other to build a globally interconnected, free and open network that enhances the lives of everybody on the planet, enables commerce and innovation by big and small players alike, makes everybody richer and freer, and improves all governments' relations with their citizens by making government more transparent, efficient, and thus more credible and legitimate.
I would quote Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in 1759: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
The speech would remind us all that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that American democracy was built on this assumption. The Internet empowers governments and law enforcement agencies as well as citizens, upstart candidates, and dissidents. I would emphasize that the great challenge of our generation - as far as freedom is concerned - is to rediscover the right balance in the Internet age between society's need for security on the one hand, and the imperative of human rights and free expression on the other. Authoritarian nations obviously don't have the balance right which is why we consider them repressive. No democracy ever stops arguing internally about where the balance should be. But I would be honest about the fact that right now the world's democracies are arguing fiercely within and sometimes amongst themselves about where the right balance point should be in the Internet age. Wouldn't it be just so wonderful if the United States could take the lead in being honest rather than acting like the Lone Ranger on a white horse, much to the derision and cynicism of all my friends back in Asia, including the ones who hate their own governments?
The problem of censorship and surveillance is obviously many magnitudes worse when these things happen without a democratic political system, independent courts, and a free press. But as I've written here and here, I'm concerned that in the name of protecting children, fighting terror and preserving the intellectual property and pre-Internet business models of companies with deep pockets and powerful lobbies, Western democracies are going too far in enabling censorship and surveillance, in a way that in turn empowers and justifies what the Chinese and other authoritarian governments are doing. A few years ago China used to deny censoring because it wasn't something a government wanted to admit in polite company. Now they proudly respond to questions about their Internet policies along the lines of: "We're merely exercising our sovereign right just like everybody else. F-off."
The U.S. congress is getting energized again to make it illegal for U.S. companies to cooperate with surveillance in "internet-restricting countries" (an ever-growing list which - depending on how you define "internet-restricting" which one could argue over endlessly - includes a growing number of democracies and close U.S. trade partners). Yesterday Glenn Greenwald brought up a chillingly ironic fact about corporate collaboration with surveillance in America:
all of the sponsors of the pending bill to ban American companies from collaborating with domestic Internet spying in foreign countries -- the inspirationally-named Global Online Freedom Act of 2009 -- voted in favor of the 2008 bill to legalize what had been the illegal warrantless interception of emails and to immunize telecoms which helped our own government break the law in how it spied on Americans.I will leave it there, and cross my fingers for Thursday. Meanwhile if you want a warm-up, I'll be speaking on a panel with Evgeny Morozov, Jim Fallows, Tim Wu and Sec. Clinton's special adviser Alec Ross at the New America Foundation tomorrow morning at 9:30am Eastern. The live webcast will be here.
Powered by ScribeFire.