From the minute of waking up, the news is literally at most people’s fingertips. For politics, there’s CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Sports fans use ESPN; the technology minded have Engadget. TMZ provides up-to-the-minute coverage of your favorite (and least favorite) celebrities in their most flattering and unflattering situations.
Regardless of one’s news preference, the unrestricted Internet is all but taken for granted in the United States. Roughly 60 percent of Americans have broadband access, and, excluding work and school locations, the access is unfiltered and reveals everything the Internet has to offer.
But, as Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said in her Feb. 15 speech at George Washington University, that is not the case around the world. Several governments — China, Syria, Cuba, Vietnam, Burma, and temporarily Egypt, Clinton specifically mentioned — restrict their citizens by blocking broadcasts and limiting or eliminating online communication. Clinton opened her speech speaking about Jan. 28, when the Egyptian government cut television satellite signals and Internet access in response to protests demanding a change in government officials. She paralleled Egypt’s censorship with Iran, which also took Internet and mobile networks from its citizens as they protested their government. While the protests eventually ended in Iran after its authorities attacked its people, Egypt saw much different results with its president resigning.
The outcome in Egypt was a prime example of the importance Clinton puts on open communication, a crucial tool for those suffering under oppressive governments.
It won’t be easy, Clinton said. She outlined three challenges to protecting open Internet: achieving both liberty and security, protecting transparency and confidentiality, and fostering tolerance and civility. Oppressive governments must consider the policies Clinton proposed on all three challenges. It is easy for such governments to spy on citizens Internet activities and prosecute bloggers, claiming to achieve security. This is in fact the absolutely incorrect method, as people will only grow more restless in the face of censorship. It is not within human nature to accept such a restriction.
Clinton’s points on transparency and confidentiality also addressed accusations of her being hypocritical with her opinion on WikiLeaks. She advocated a level of confidentiality to allow the United States government to protect its people, referencing the United States’ work securing loose nuclear material from former Soviet states.
But that is no excuse for governments to ignore or try to eliminate input from their citizens. Citizen input, including that formed through collaboration on the Internet, should be just as important as the work that understandably happens behind closed doors; governments cannot have one without the other.
Finally, Clinton’s views on tolerance and civility represent another fundamental idea in a free Internet. Yes, an open Internet will expose undesirable opinions, even ones advocating the oppressive governments that motivated Clinton’s speech. But, “As it has historically been proven,” she said, “the better answer to offensive speech is more speech.”
A government can try to block its citizens’ true feelings, but for every attempt at suppression, there will be an equally formidable force finding a way to facilitate open communication. Governments should realize this and offer everything the Internet has to their people.