The United States has restated its commitment to keep the Internet free and make it a bulwark of democracy but, unsurprisingly, there is no chorus of welcome for its fulsome defence of online freedoms. In a recent university address titled “Internet Rights and Wrongs: Choices and Challenges in a Networked World,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton berated authoritarian regimes and praised the people of Tunisia and Egypt for using digital tools to organise democratic protests. In the future, she said, America would partner civil society and governments and even fund technologists to protect the open Internet. This second assertion of net freedoms in two years should have impressed many but it did not — and with good reason. As the WikiLeaks episode makes clear, U.S. policy is deeply flawed by the contradiction of espousing an open Internet, and in parallel, working to prevent inconvenient disclosures. At the time Ms Clinton was underscoring high opportunity costs for countries which filter or shut down the Internet, the U.S. administration was pursuing legal action to arm-twist Twitter, the very website that she was praising for helping frustrated citizens of the Arab world. U.S. government officials are seeking court orders to compel Twitter to hand over personal details, including private messages, of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning, the detained American soldier, and Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Iceland's parliament.
To praise the Internet for aiding truth-telling and, in the same breath, dismiss the discussion on free speech for websites such as WikiLeaks as a “false debate” is hypocritical. It can be credibly argued that the simmering discontent in Tunisia exploded in public anger when WikiLeaks published the cables on the U.S. ambassador's assessment of corruption by President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The Tunisian uprising, then, was triggered by the WikiLeaks revelations, and fanned by the Internet. In a more connected world the key question before the U.S. is to define confidentiality. The less of it, the better. For the media, and by extension the Internet, the decision to publish secrets is not a difficult one. The judicial position on the Pentagon Papers on Vietnam, refusing to grant prior restraint on publication of classified documents, serves as a clear guide. This unambiguous principle should underpin free speech online in the era of WikiLeaks. There is absolutely no evidence to show that the whistleblower website endangered lives. Through all the controversy, the media have done well to strengthen their oversight mechanism and redact sensitive information. As a tireless advocate of ‘democracy,' the U.S. needs to believe in its own assertions on unfettered free speech and stop introducing self-serving double standards.