Clinton Demands Net Freedom Abroad, At Home, Not So Much

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a speech today at George Washington University urging governments abroad to embrace internet freedom:

“The United States continues to help people in oppressive Internet environments get around filters, stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online,” she said.

The secretary of state said the federal government hasn’t backed any single technology for the Internet because “we believe there is no silver bullet in the struggle against Internet repression.”

“There’s no app for that,” she said.

She noted the federal government will award $25 million in grants to support technologists and activists working “at the cutting edge of the fight against Internet repression.”

The comments come even as the United States has moved to tighten online restrictions at home:

Clinton’s speech came a day after the House voted to extend to December 8 three controversial domestic spy provisions of the Patriot Act. And Customs officials seized 18 more internet domains without giving the pirate website owners a chance to challenge the forfeiture.

What’s more, the Obama administration on Thursday is expected to testify before a House subcommittee about the need to expand the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which already requires telcos and internet access providers to have wiretapping capabilities. The FBI wants Congress to demand that same requirement for encrypted e-mail services like Blackberry, and also wants that for social networks and peer-to-peer messaging networks like Skype.

The secretary, meanwhile, was quick to point out that the United States government’s vocal and legal campaign against WikiLeaks is premised on a “theft” of government material.

“The fact that WikiLeaks used the internet is not the reason we criticized its actions,” Clinton said.

Hours after the speech, the Justice Department was in federal court trying to get Twitter to cough up records related to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and others.

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram:

It’s obvious that while the U.S. government is content to preach to foreign countries like China about how they need to open up, it is more than happy to go after WikiLeaks using whatever means necessary — despite the fact that what the organization did isn’t even a crime. That’s called trying to have your cake and eat it too, and it makes all of Secretary Clinton’s stirring talk about freedom difficult to take seriously.

Her full Wikileaks comments:

“…I know that government confidentiality has been a topic of debate during the past few months because of WikiLeaks, but it’s been a false debate in many ways. Fundamentally, the WikiLeaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase. Some have suggested that this theft was justified because governments have a responsibility to conduct all of our work out in the open in the full view of our citizens. I respectfully disagree. The United States could neither provide for our citizens’ security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our efforts. Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise.

“Consider our work with former Soviet states to secure loose nuclear material. By keeping the details confidential, we make it less likely that terrorists or criminals will find the nuclear material and steal it for their own purposes. Or consider the content of the documents that WikiLeaks made public. Without commenting on the authenticity of any particular documents, we can observe that many of the cables released by WikiLeaks relate to human rights work carried on around the world. Our diplomats closely collaborate with activists, journalists, and citizens to challenge the misdeeds of oppressive governments. It is dangerous work. By publishing diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks exposed people to even greater risk.

“For operations like these, confidentiality is essential, especially in the internet age when dangerous information can be sent around the world with the click of a keystroke. But of course, governments also have a duty to be transparent. We govern with the consent of the people, and that consent must be informed to be meaningful. So we must be judicious about when we close off our work to the public, and we must review our standards frequently to make sure they are rigorous. In the United States, we have laws designed to ensure that the government makes its work open to the people, and the Obama Administration has also launched an unprecedented initiative to put government data online, to encourage citizen participation, and to generally increase the openness of government.

“The U.S. Government’s ability to protect America, to secure the liberties of our people, and to support the rights and freedoms of others around the world depends on maintaining a balance between what’s public and what should and must remain out of the public domain. The scale should and will always be tipped in favor of openness, but tipping the scale over completely serves no one’s interests. Let me be clear. I said that the WikiLeaks incident began with a theft, just as if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase. The fact that WikiLeaks used the internet is not the reason we criticized its actions. WikiLeaks does not challenge our commitment to internet freedom.

“And one final word on this matter: There were reports in the days following these leaks that the United States Government intervened to coerce private companies to deny service to WikiLeaks. That is not the case. Now, some politicians and pundits publicly called for companies to disassociate from WikiLeaks, while others criticized them for doing so. Public officials are part of our country’s public debates, but there is a line between expressing views and coercing conduct. Business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own values or policies regarding WikiLeaks were not at the direction of the Obama Administration.”

The NYTimes report on the speech.