Net Freedom and Nationalism – Part I

February 17, 2011

I started writing this as a single post, but this is looking like a big topic, so I’m going to split this up into a few parts. This one is about the notion, popular in the US and elsewhere and mentioned in Clinton’s speech this week, that Net controls will obviously lead to political and social instability.

The US made a lot of news this week about Internet controls, with a major speech by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and a report issued by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (PDF file). The context was Egypt, but the sub-text was China (the Senate report was China-specific). Reading all this stuff over the past couple of days, I’m left with one simple question: does the US mean what it says, or is this just clever realpolitik in action?

Let’s start with Secretary Clinton, who set up her discussion of Net restrictions as a global conversation. The Net is, after all, a world wide web, so talking about what we all collectively agree upon as its guiding principles makes sense:

To maintain an internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that will guide us, what rules exist and should not exist and why, what behaviors should be encouraged or discouraged and how.

Lovely. She then went on to explain what some of those guiding principles should be, from the US perspective. But what will happen if some nations decide not to follow those principles? Very bad things, apparently:

These actions [censorship and access restrictions] reflect a landscape that is complex and combustible, and sure to become more so in the coming years as billions of more people connect to the internet.

What does “combustible” mean? In my opinion, Clinton is saying that if you, foreign government, do not follow the principles I have laid out, your people will depose your ass violently like they just did in Egypt.

I’m happy to go along with Clinton’s list of principles, which I strongly support (perhaps even more than she does, but I’ll get to that in a later post). However, that “combustible” comment is not only vaguely threatening, but I think incorrect.

Is she really saying that Net controls toppled the Egyptian government? No, she’s not saying that, nor is anyone espousing that point of view. The people there had a long list of grievances that had nothing to do with the Net.

And yet. Clinton’s speech contains a list of nations that engage in Net controls, including Vietnam, China and Cuba (interesting choices). In the very next sentence, there is a reference to those activities and the word “combustible.” If I’m misinterpreting this, please explain her diction to me.

Assuming for the moment that I’m right, can we test this premise at all? Well, we can certainly look at modern China, which has, shall we say, robust security measures when it comes to Net content. Those who believe in Clinton’s pronouncement on this would expect, over time, that such content controls would necessarily lead to instability.

But that’s arguably not happening in China, and the social tension that we do experience here is all about income inequality, corruption, pollution, inflation and so on, and very little to do with Net controls which, despite their presence, actually still allow for fierce debate on those very topics.

In other words, I don’t see folks marching in the streets with pitchforks and torches because they can’t get on Facebook. The average citizen has more important fish to fry.

Clinton’s comment in this sense is a bit strange, because earlier in her speech she took great pains to point out that events in Egypt were not caused by the Net, the change was brought about by the people. Indeed, she said, the Net is a neutral force that can be used for good or evil.1

I agree. The Net is a neutral force, and it is also not a significant source of social discontent, at least not from where I sit here in Beijing. People who assume that any curtailment of free expression will eventually lead to widespread push back are engaging in wishful thinking, assuming that what they care about from their safe perch in D.C. (or where ever) must be important to everyone in the world.

Sorry, but the price of soybeans is simply a bigger deal right now.

What’s one of the messages I see lurking about in Clinton’s speech? That the US is still engaged in some kind of an ideological struggle (against Communism?). This is not simply a matter of how the Net should be governed, but an epic battle between right and wrong, with the losers going the way of the dodo.

If Clinton simply wished to say that Net freedom is important and that the US supports that policy, there would have been no need to make lists of the bad acts of Communist nations, use inflammatory language like “combustible” (didn’t mean that to be funny), and discuss the “political costs” and “social stability” problems that Net controls engender.

If you add all this up, it’s more than just “We’re right, and you’re wrong,” but “If you don’t agree with us, you’re toast.”

Still, we could chalk all this up to a passionate and sincere American belief in free expression, one that is so strong that it trumps other policy concerns. To do that, of course, we would have to conveniently ignore America’s own Net controls (Part II will pick up on this issue).

  1. Her words, not mine. In my opinion, the concepts of good and evil should never be used in a policy discussion. It’s intellectually lazy and can be dangerous.[]