Liberty or Safety? Both-or Neither

Different people see different things in the words "global Internet Freedom"

3 min read

On 12 January, Google announced that it had been a victim of sophisticated cyberattacks originating in China. Suspecting that the Chinese government had at the very least been turning a blind eye to the problem, the company announced that it would no longer censor its Chinese search results. This tiff between the biggest country and the biggest Internet company affects 1 billion people, tens of thousands of companies, and hundreds of research institutions. It also sets a problem before the rest of the world: Many countries, including the United States, are now grappling with the question of how to balance freedom and security in the Internet age.

In the United States, Republicans and Democrats took a brief time-out from tearing one another apart over health-care reform to praise Google for its principled stand. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a rousing speech declaring Internet freedom to be a pillar of U.S. foreign policy. Lawmakers called on the Obama administration to do more—and yes, spend more money—to support activists fighting censorship around the world.

Those seeking more government funding for cybersecurity are suddenly enjoying unprecedented support from Congress and U.S. government agencies. Funding may be tight for a lot of things in Washington, but not, it would seem, for anything tagged with ”cybersecurity” or ”Internet freedom.”

The problem is that efforts to advance one of these goals can easily conflict with or cancel out the other. For example, Internet freedom requires anonymity—people need to be able to post or access whatever they want without fear of reprisal. But anonymity works against security, because it allows cybercriminals to hide. So that tension raises a couple of questions: Who is in charge of anticipating conflicts and working to avoid them? Who will be the final arbiter as conflicts inevitably arise?

As a free-speech activist, I’m delighted that the U.S. government wants to support technologies that will enable dissidents and whistle-blowers to use the Internet anonymously and securely all over the world. It gives me hope that as the Internet’s architecture and technical standards continue to evolve, the possibility of individual anonymity and privacy may not be obliterated—despite the headaches that these freedoms cause for banks, businesses, and law enforcement.

What worries me, however, is that based on the congressional hearings I’ve attended and conversations I’ve had with people in different parts of the U.S. government, there is no political consensus whatsoever on how to coordinate the conflicting interests and policy goals. Since 2006, Google had gone along with China’s demands that it block access to sites that China’s government disapproved of. But in late March, Google announced it would move its Chinese-language search service to Hong Kong and cease censorship. Two days later, a bipartisan group of senators launched something called the Global Internet Freedom Caucus. The idea, according to Democrat Ted Kaufman of Delaware, is to ”provide bipartisan leadership within the Congress supporting robust engagement by the public and private sectors to secure digital freedoms throughout the world.” Sounds great. Who could be against that?

The problem is that in Washington, the phrase ”global Internet freedom” is like a Rorschach test, in which different people look at the same ink splotch and see very different things.

U.S. politicians all agree that the concept of global Internet freedom should apply to prodemocracy activists in foreign dictatorships. But not many of them seem to have considered the possibility that the rights of their own constituencies to hear unpopular viewpoints also need protection. So, therefore, if we want to expand global Internet freedom for the long haul, we have to set the priorities. Do we fund software engineers who build censorship-circumvention tools? Or do we engage in the much more difficult work of ensuring that the Internet’s technical standards, protocols, regulations, governance practices, laws, and business norms will maximize freedom and minimize the potential for abuse everywhere?

As I sat in the front row listening to Senator Joe Lieberman speak at the launch of the Global Internet Freedom Caucus, I had to bite my lip when he said, ”The United States has both a strategic interest and a moral imperative to ensure that the Internet works to empower people everywhere to secure their inalienable human rights—rather than allow the dictators who hope to use new technologies to achieve greater control and stifle dissent.” This is the same person who in 2008 demanded that YouTube take down hundreds of videos by extremist Islamic groups. You can’t have it both ways, Joe. As Benjamin Franklin said, ”Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” That’s why China has neither.

About the Author

Rebecca MacKinnon is a visiting fellow at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, cofounder of Global Voices Online, and a founding member of the Global Network Initiative. She is writing a book about the future of freedom in the Internet age.

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