Human Rights First Praises Steps to Ensure Global Internet Freedom

Human Rights First is calling the February 15th  internet freedom speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a down payment on the administration’s promises to enforce the freedom to connect around the world. The group praised the Secretary’s pledges to more directly and systematically confront governments that censor and surveil their citizens in order to curb dissent, and to expand and deepen programs to train and support activists using technology. In addition, the group welcomed the creation of a cyber issues coordinator.

“One year ago this week, human rights defenders from around the globe met with President Obama and urged him to formulate a strategy to promote freedom of expression in countries where it is under threat, and to fulfill his pledge to make internet freedom a priority,” said Human Rights First’s Meg Roggensack. “At that time, those defenders drew inspiration from Secretary Clinton’s declaration that all people must have a freedom to connect. Today, human rights activists should be reinvigorated by the concrete steps she has outlined to achieve that goal.”

In the speech that came just weeks after the power of the Internet unleashed a series of historic reforms in Egypt, Secretary Clinton made clear that the freedom to connect is more than the ability to get online. She noted that it relates to the openness of that connection and the ability to use the Internet to pursue universal rights – including the right to seek, receive and obtain information, to associate freely, and to organize in a virtual town square.

“The freedom to connect is rooted in the universal rights of freedom of expression and opinion, and the rights of association and assembly. It has global reach,” said Roggensack. “This is what distinguishes the experience of an internet user in China, where the Internet is heavily censored and surveilled, or Turkey, where the government has intermittently blocked You Tube, from that of an Internet user in democratic societies.”

Human Rights First agrees with Secretary Clinton’s observation that even democracies struggle to get the balance right and that in balancing transparency and openness, the scale should always tilt toward openness.  For example, as Human Rights First has previously noted in connection with the WikiLeaks case, it is inappropriate for any government to press a company to compromise its services to stifle the free flow of information.

Secretary Clinton’s speech today comes just one year after human rights defenders from around the world gathered in Washington, DC for a Human Rights Summit hosted by Human Rights First and Freedom House.  Since that time, threats to defenders have deepened and come from unexpected corners. As Human Rights First described yesterday in its new report A Campaign Against Dissent, Russia is using selective enforcement of antipiracy laws to stifle dissent and curb speech.  In several of these cases, Microsoft’s local Russian representatives played a supportive role. The report outlines how Microsoft, Human Rights First and Russian civil society worked together to address the concern. Microsoft ultimately adopted a temporary license program to address the immediate threat and plans to transition to a permanent program over the next year. According to Human Rights First, the Russian case illustrates two additional points stressed in the speech – that a range of tools and tactics are needed to support activists using technology and social media, because the threats are not limited to censorship, and that the private sector must play an important role in working to address these challenges.

Human Rights First and Microsoft are both founding members of the Global Network Initiative, formed to help companies respond to government demands to limit or compromise services in ways that affect freedom of expression and privacy. The GNI’s Principles are relevant to all businesses operating in the Information and Telecommunications sector. Almost every day, one of these companies is in the news in relation to a challenge from government. Last week it was Vodafone, its relationship to the Mubarak government, and its decision to suspend mobile services. This week, it’s Facebook, again, and questions about its real name policy and implications for users in Egypt and Tunisia.

“Companies can’t ‘go it alone’ in facing these challenges, and when they do, they inevitably make choices that erode the openness of the internet for all users,” Roggensack concluded.  Users will increasingly evaluate companies not only by the services they provide, but also by the trust they engender through appropriate policies to ensure responsible decision making.” As the Secretary recognized, the government needs strong corporate partners who share the commitment to an open internet.

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