Applying U.S. principles on Internet freedom

Who are the actual agents of transparency and who are its opponents?

Topics: Internet Culture,

Applying U.S. principles on Internet freedomA protestor shouts slogans against former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the center of Tunis, Monday, Jan. 17. 2011. Police were seen using tear gas to break up a demonstration on the main avenue in central Tunis on Monday, and helicopters were circling overhead. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)(Credit: AP)

Hillary Clinton, speech on Internet freedom, Newseum, Washington, DC, January, 21, 2010:

Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation. In an interconnected world, an attack on one nation’s networks can be an attack on all.

The New York Times, Saturday:

Over the past two years, according to intelligence and military experts familiar with its operations, Dimona has taken on a new, equally secret role . . . . Dimona tested the effectiveness of the Stuxnet computer worm, a destructive program that appears to have wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. . . . the operations there, as well as related efforts in the United States, are among the newest and strongest clues suggesting that the virus was designed as an American-Israeli project to sabotage the Iranian program. . . . The biggest single factor in putting time on the nuclear clock appears to be Stuxnet, the most sophisticated cyberweapon ever deployed.

Clinton’s Internet freedom speech:

During his visit to China in November, President Obama held a town hall meeting with an online component to highlight the importance of the internet. In response to a question that was sent in over the internet, he defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity. The United States’ belief in that truth is what brings me here today.

Salon, December 6, 2010:

Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters today that he is personally involved in the ongoing criminal probe of WikiLeaks and that he authorized “a number of things to be done so that we can get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable.”

Clinton’s Internet speech:



Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks. . . . They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Huffington Post, December 4, 2010:

Talking about WikiLeaks on Facebook or Twitter could endanger your job prospects, a State Department official warned students at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs this week.

An email from SIPA’s Office of Career Services went out Tuesday afternoon with a caution from the official, an alumnus of the school. Students who will be applying for jobs in the federal government could jeopardize their prospects by posting links to WikiLeaks online, or even by discussing the leaked documents on social networking sites, the official was quoted as saying.

ACLU, September, 2010:

DHS asserts the right to look though the contents of a traveler’s electronic devices — including laptops, cameras and cell phones — and to keep the devices or copy the contents in order to continue searching them once the traveler has been allowed to enter the U.S., regardless of whether the traveler is suspected of any wrongdoing . . . . Documents obtained by the ACLU in response to a separate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit for records related to the DHS policy reveal that more than 6,600 travelers, nearly half of whom are American citizens, were subjected to electronic device searches at the border between October 1, 2008 and June 2, 2010.

Clinton’s Internet freedom speech:

But amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognize that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing. These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights. . . . technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.

The New York Times, Sunday:

Tunisia’s president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled his country on Friday night, capitulating after a month of mounting protests calling for an end to his 23 years of authoritarian rule. . . . The United States had counted Tunisia under Mr. Ben Ali as an important ally in battling terrorism. . . .

The protesters, led at first by unemployed college graduates like Mr. Bouazizi and later joined by workers and young professionals, found grist for the complaints in leaked cables from the United States Embassy in Tunisia, released by WikiLeaks, that detailed the self-dealing and excess of the president’s family. . .”Thank you, Al Jazeera,” read one sign, commending the Arab news channel for its nightly coverage of the unrest in the past month — long before the Western news media took serious notice. Many here credit Al Jazeera’s broadcasts with forging the sense of solidarity and empowerment that moved Tunisians across the country to take to the streets simultaneously.

The U.S. has spent years warning that cyber warfare is the New Terrorism of the 21st Century; former DNI Michael McConnell even demanded in The Washington Post that the Internet be re-engineered to vest government and the private sector much greater surveillance controls to combat it (without disclosing the huge profits his Booz Allen clients stand to gain from such measures).  All the while, the U.S. was collaborating with the Israelis to engineer the most sophisticated and destructive cyber warfare weapon the world has ever known, one it secretly unleashed last year (and that’s to say nothing of the assassination of Iranian scientists which this weekend’s New York Times article obliquely mentions without expressing any interest in knowing who the culprits are).  Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s always-escalating war on whistleblowers — symbolized by its recent digging into Twitter accounts of WikiLeaks volunteers — is accompanied by sermons about the evils of punishing those who expose government wrongdoing and deceit and of exploiting Internet technologies to stifle transparency and accountability.

But it’s the Tunisia example that is most striking.  Virtually everyone is celebrating this triumph over oppression, with hopes that it can spark similar events in other nations in that region.  The causes of this uprising are complex and difficult to discern; it’s unclear how large of a role, if any, the WikiLeaks cables or Al Jazeera reports actually played in inspiring it.  But what is clear is that cables released by WikiLeaks — which, we should recall, were allegedly first obtained and disclosed by Bradley Manning — graphically detailed for the Tunisian citizenry the opulence and corruption of Tunisia’s U.S.-backed ruling family, and they were amplified by Al Jazeera.  By stark contrast, the U.S. Government — under both Bush and Obama — were steadfast supporters of this regime. 

Exposing this type of corruption, oppression and deceit, and spurring these types of reforms, is exactly what Bradley Manning said (if one believes the chats) was his reason for his wanting the world to see these documents.  And using the Internet to promote what Hillary Clinton called “human progress and political rights” is precisely one of WikiLeaks’ primary objectives.  Yet the real agents of harnessing Interent and media technologies to promote freedom and human rights in Tunisia (and elsewhere) are either currently imprisoned by the U.S. (Manning), being harassed and on the verge of being prosecuted (WikiLeaks), or constantly demonized in the American media (Al Jazeera).  And that’s all being done by the same government that stands behind these repressive regimes and punishes those who seek to expose them — all while lecturing the world about the evils of those who seek to stifle transparency and freedom.  It’s hard to imagine anyone outside of the U.S. reacting with anything other than scornful laughter in the face of these American lectures on Internet freedom.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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