Clinton praised for Internet freedom speech

The State Department's focus on new technologies will help dissidents, an activist says

Camran Ashraf, an Iranian-American digital activist, was encouraged by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's anticensorship speech Thursday.

Clinton's announcement that fighting Internet censorship would be a top priority for the Department of State is welcome news for dissidents in Iran, said Ashraf, co-founder of AccessNow.org, a group focused on providing Internet tools allowing freedom of expression.

"We're getting closer to a 21st century government understanding 21st century technology to help develop 21st century rights," Ashraf said. "I was concerned for a while that the U.S. had turned its back on human rights. To see Secretary Clinton boldly stand up there and not be ashamed about human rights ... was very powerful."

Clinton said the State Department would support developers working on the same Web-based tools that AccessNow.org supports. More support for tools including Web filter circumvention software, surfing anonymization software and mobile phone encryption is needed, because many of the developers have day jobs and are working on those projects part-time, Ashraf said. The State Department could also fund projects to slow down or prevent denial-of-service attacks on opposition Web sites, he said.

"The State Department needs to support those technologies, no matter where they come from, enabling people to have their voices heard, even if their voice is their dying breath," he said.

Clinton's speech lacked specifics, but it was a "very broad" statement about the importance of free speech online, Ashraf said. "It was a sweeping overview of a general direction, but the right direction," he said.

Sally Wentworth, regional manager for North America at the Internet Society, also praised Clinton's speech. "When governments make Internet freedom, Internet growth and innovation a priority, we think it's good for the global Internet," said Wentworth, a former Internet policy advisor at the State Department. "We were very encouraged by what she had to say today."

The State Department's focus on promoting Internet users' freedom to connect is important for economic growth and social progress, Wentworth added. The State Department's anticensorship push will help create an "open and interoperable Internet," she added.

Clinton's speech received positive reviews from many Internet-focused advocacy and trade groups.

Public Knowledge, a digital rights group, suggested the U.S. could strengthen some of its own protections. There is no legal protection for text messaging in the U.S., and the U.S should pass net neutrality rules, said Gigi Sohn, the group's president.

"Secretary Clinton is to be commended for raising Internet freedom to the level as a major element of our foreign policy," Sohn added in a statement. "Her speech this morning served to highlight the incredible benefits that come from a free, interconnected network."

The Center for Democracy and Technology, another digital rights group, called Clinton's speech "a critical moment in the evolution of the Internet."

"Authoritarian regimes are remaking the Internet into a tool of political control; meanwhile, democratic countries are struggling to manage old social ills in the new digital world," Leslie Harris, CDT's president, said in a statement. "The United States must take bold action to ensure that the global Internet remains a powerful force for democracy and human rights, Secretary Clinton's speech is an historic first step toward that end."

Skype also gave the speech high marks.

"Conducting international relations by encouraging online interaction is an example of the Internet's power to change the way governments and people around the world engage as part of one global community," Staci Pies, Skype's director of government and regulatory affairs, said in a statement.

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