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The Tangled Web of ‘Internet Freedom’

By Roy Revie

Recognition of the disruptive role that new Internet technologies play in the contemporary political environment dominated discussions at the 2012 Milton Wolf Seminar. The complexities of this disruption were particularly apparent when Sarah Labowitz, policy adviser to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor outlined the U.S. State Department's “Internet Freedom” program.  A critical examination of the American perspective on “Internet Freedom” highlights the particular difficulties and contradictions of foreign policy in the Internet age.  In international discourse about freedom online, progressive rhetoric sometimes clashes with concrete issues of power and sovereignty.

In recent years the U.S. State Department’s "Internet Freedom" agenda has gained prominence in American foreign policy. Drawing on Hilary Clinton’s high-profile speeches  on the subject, Labowitz described a set of policy priorities based on (1) a "principled defense of the Internet as an open public space," distinct from any other government Internet-engagement; and (2) the insistence on the continued existence of "a single Internet." Thus the Internet Freedom strand of U.S. State Department policy characterizes the Internet as a unified space to be protected and promoted rather than a tool for achieving specific foreign policy objectives. I maintain, however, that a more nuanced and honest understanding of the challenges posed by the Internet to international relations is required, and that this understanding must be based on a more robust analysis of state power online.

The promotion of Internet Freedom as a distinct and separate policy priority is highly problematic.  It systematically ignores the contradictions and challenges of state activity and power imbalances online. In the age of online public diplomacy, the new Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication (CSCC), the promotion and funding of foreign dissidents’ online activities, and Stuxnet, an understanding of Internet Freedom as a policy of space preservation—separate from the use of the Internet as a tool for foreign policy—is simply not tenable. Hillary Clinton’s promotion of Internet Freedom specifically addresses “hard” foreign policy goals. She prefaced her 2010 Internet Freedom speech, for example, with a mention of the VOICE Act. This act authorized funding of Farsi language propaganda channels and granted $20 million for the development and distribution of anti-censorship tools for Iranians and "internet-based education programs and other exchanges with Americans online." The promotion of an “open public space” cannot be legitimately separated, analytically or politically, from activities in this space pursuing more specific foreign policy aims. To do so is akin to asserting the freedom of outer space, while simultaneously developing programs to militarize or otherwise strategically exploit it.

The U.S. State Department’s Internet Freedom agenda extends well beyond rhetoric to the provision of circumvention and other anti-censorship and digital security tools to Internet users around the world.  This provision is hardly neutral: The State Department also provides training to foreign citizens in more repressive Internet environments, particularly to activists (over 7,500 undefined 'activists' had received such training as of March 2012), and works with American tech companies to leverage Internet tools for foreign policy goals. For example, it partners with Google, YouTube, Facebook, and others in funding the Alliance for Youth Movements (rebranded as, a networking group for youth activist groups. The U.S. State Department also sponsors “Tech Camps" that train activists and civil society groups in the use of online tools for organizing and protest. Given the multiplicity of ways the U.S. government utilizes the Internet in the service of foreign policy goals, the insistence that Internet Freedom policy as distinct and removed from the world of realpolitik is a deceit that precludes serious debate.

Positing the concept of a "single internet" as axiomatic further impedes discussion.  The internet is notionally an open, free, and neutral space. Yet, an analysis of traffic, content, and ownership suggests that hierarchies of power and influence have developed on top of this framework, such that it has been said that the internet forms part of the American political space. From the concentration of ownership of major Internet companies to the aggressive pursuit of legislation impacting the entire network, the political-economy of the Internet demonstrates that the United States exerts disproportionate power. We can point to numerous individual examples in which the U.S. government has exerted power over the Internet, including placing pressure on WikiLeaks through U.S.-based internet giants and pursuing the extradition of U.K. citizen Richard O’Dwyer—a man who has never been to the United States or even used a server based there—to the U.S. for copyright offenses. In light of these activities, the assertion of a “single Internet” masks serious issues of power and sovereignty, issues that must be addressed in order to productively debate the future of the Internet.

“Internet Freedom” rhetoric thus denies the relevance of both widespread interference in other countries’ domestic politics and significant power imbalances online. The shrugging off of these issues and the rejection of a holistic view of the situation is highly counter-productive. Iranian claims that the Internet is a tool of Western espionage and that the West is waging “soft war” online is a mirror image of the American position; it is an equally un-nuanced argument that demonizes Western control over Internet tools in order to reinforce the legitimacy of the Iranian state. In the Iranian case, the inability to openly discuss the policy and structural elements excluded from “Internet Freedom” rhetoric polarizes the debate, leaving no possibility of reconciliation. This leads to more than discursive problems; the Iranian regime cites the disconnect between the rhetoric of “Internet freedom” and the realities of Western control over the Internet to legitimate tightening control over domestic internet space, which further degrades Internet freedom.

In the situation above, both institutions gain in the short term. The U.S. State Department gets good “tech-savvy,” ”forward-thinking” PR copy (a publicity-stream which NATO also seems keen to tap into) and the authoritarians consolidate power. It is individual Internet users who pay the price. Ultimately, if international agreements rather than ad-hoc technical resistance are going to be used to protect Internet freedom, an honest assessment of where power lies online and how it is wielded is necessary. This includes recognizing that states (not just authoritarian ones) might have to take a step back. The Internet’s ability to bring people together, to let them share information and ideas is its greatest power and where it is had the most impact. During the Seminar, Dr. Babak Rahimi emphasized that the Internet’s greatest ability to enact change rests upon its organic nature and comes through its role as a “social space.” Looking at the Iranian case, he underlined the need to "enable social spaces to grow and perhaps lead to political participation and new ways of looking at politics in authoritarian contexts." The problems come when states attempts to wield this power—when the Internet is used as a tool, no matter what the accompanying rhetoric says.



Roy Revie is a doctoral researcher at the University of Bath (U.K.) examining the mediation of power in the digital age. His research explores the communication and information aspects of contemporary conflict—particularly the impact of social and new media on diplomatic and military communication.

[Photo courtesy of Bruce Rolff via Shutterstock]


This is the last in a series of five dispatches from the 2012 Milton Wolf Seminar titled, "Transitions Transformed: Ideas of Information and Democracy Post-2011". To read the others, click here: III, III, IV.

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