Friday, January 22, 2010

Clinton speaks out on Internet freedom

Ten days after Google made an announcement that it may quit China citing increased censorship and cyber-attacks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a keynote speech in which she backed the Internet search giant's stance and urged others to consider their approach in dealing with oppressive regimes. 

"Increasingly, US companies are making the issue of information freedom a greater consideration in their business decisions. I hope that their competitors and foreign governments will pay close attention to this trend," Clinton said in her address at the Newseum's Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater in Washington DC.

"We feel strongly that principles like information freedom aren't just good policy, they're good business for all involved," she said, "To use market terminology, a publicly-listed company in Tunisia or Vietnam that operates in an environment of censorship will always trade at a discount relative to an identical firm in a free society. If corporate decision makers don't have access to global sources of news and information, investors will have less confidence in their decisions." While not always specifically pointing a finger at China, her criticism was clear directed at the country. "Countries that censor news and information must recognize that, from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech. If businesses in your nation are denied access to either type of information, it will inevitably reduce growth," Clinton argued.

The US Secretary of State urged a thorough review of China's censorship policy and an investigation into cyber-attacks said to have targeted Chinese dissidents. "We look to Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough investigation of the cyber intrusions that led Google to make this announcement. We also look for that investigation and its results to be transparent," Clinton said. But while acknowledging there had been much progress in China , she warned that China's failing open up more would be a mistake. "The Internet has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it's great that so many people there are now online. But countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century."

Her comments mark the Obama adminstration's first major foray into foreign policy online and come at a delicate time for relations between the US and China. Issues over trade tariffs and rifts over the Copenhagen climate change deal have soured relations between the US and China. Britain and Australia have also been at loggerheads with China over its justice system. Britain was highly critical of the sentencing and execution of Ahmed Shaikh, a convicted drug smuggler who his supporters said was mentally ill. Australia, though a little quieter in its representations, has raised concern over the arrest of Hu Stern, a Rio Tinto executive who has been charged with bribery and awaits trial. 

China argues that it is not for others to interfere with its internal affairs. However, as a part of a global community, it must recognise there are core principles of transparency and openness. In a global market every country should play by the same rules, and while the West may sometimes shy away from its responsibilities at times, for China this is far more common. China's leader often raise the subject of protectionism, but ignore the fact that its censorship of the Internet is in itself a form of protectionism. While its homegrown Internet services are allowed to flourish, foreign competitors are blocked or restricted.

Writing in the Financial Times, Arthur Kroeber, managing director of Dragonomics Research and Advisory, says, "Google's global business is based on open networks, free information flows, and the company's perceived right to manage those flows. That right in turn is a function of Google's credibility and trustworthiness. If Google loses its customers' trust, it has no business – anywhere." His opinion was in line with that expressed by Hillary Clinton as he suggests a failure to open up the Internet will inhibit growth. "as long as a paranoid party insists on controlling what Chinese Internet users can see and read and write, revenues and profits will be far lower than they would be in a free environment," Kroeber says. "Until China creates a society in which the relationship between the government and the governed is based on trust rather than fear, networks will be crimped, information flows throttled, and post-industrial innovation will fail to thrive."

It is clear that with or without censorship, China will make a mark in the 21st century. Its economy will grow and the country will develop. But its failure to recognise basic human rights will gain it many enemies along the way. This will in itself temper its image abroad and may in turn affect trade. The barriers often become narrower as the state becomes more paranoid. China's leaders are increasingly paranoid that free discussion will shake their seats of power and upset the so-called 'harmonious' society it is attempting to build.

Visiting China in November last year, President Obama said he was a "big supporter of non-censorship" and said that "The more freely information flows, the stronger society becomes." The words clearly fell on deaf ears as the Internet restrictions since have become even tighter.

In her closing remarks, Clinton said, "Ultimately, this issue isn't just about information freedom; it's about what kind of world we're going to inhabit. It's about whether we live on a planet with one Internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that unites and benefits us all. Or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors." 

Her speech was not broadcast by any Chinese network and at the time of posting this article there was no story about her address in Chinese media. CNN broadcast the address live both, on the Internet and via CNN International. The BBC and Sky News also covered the event, though it was not broadcast live by the BBC World Service or CNN Radio.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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