When events unfolded in Egypt two years ago, it was a historic moment both because political change was sweeping through the Middle East and because political revolution had finally entered the digital age. Citizens, largely without weapons, harnessed the power of the Internet and mobile communications to topple an authoritarian regime.
But as the great promise of the Arab Spring turns into a much darker reality, it is increasingly clear that the United States is failing in its commitment to use technology to advance worldwide democracy.
In 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave one of the most powerful speeches a U.S. leader has delivered on the topic of Internet freedom, declaring that “we cannot stand by while people are separated from our human family by walls of censorship… . Let us make these technologies a force for real progress the world over.”
Congress has gotten in on the action, advancing bipartisan legislation this spring declaring that the United States stands for Internet freedom and noting its opposition to efforts by authoritarian regimes to regulate the Web.
But as Egyptians once again take to the streets, the U.S. commitment to Internet freedom has languished. Despite grand ambitions and lofty rhetoric, little meaningful progress has been made to put more powerful communications technologies into the hands of oppressed citizens.
The federal financial commitment to Internet freedom amounted to about $25 million in 2012 — a tiny sum to begin with and a scant annual increase from the $75 million spent between 2008 and 2011.
Meanwhile, the State Department’s NetFreedom Task Force — trumpeted by Clinton as the spearhead of our commitment to Internet freedom — has not met since last fall. The State Department’s Internet Freedom website, the public face of U.S. efforts to use technology to advance democracy, has not posted a news update in two years.
And in Congress? Even a simple statement of support for an Internet free from centralized control, a principle widely embraced by Democrats and Republicans, has stalled as lawmakers use it to advance partisan agendas.
The United States’ failure to lead is not about lack of need. Worldwide Internet censorship has grown more severe since those remarkable months in 2011. After seeing digital communications’ effectiveness in empowering citizens, authoritarian leaders in nation after nation have taken steps to limit access to communications technologies.
Chinese and North Korean censorship campaigns should surprise no one. But the threat extends well beyond these traditional bad actors to Saudi Arabia, Ecuador and even some of the United States’ closest democratic allies.
Australia, a country rarely connected with political oppression, advanced some of the free world’s most egregious censorship this year. According to Polliter.com, Australia’s efforts to censor Twitter feeds to control anti-government commentary made it the first democracy to identify, filter and ban free speech during peacetime.
Singapore has expanded media censorship to online journalism, requiring news websites to buy a government license and respond to censors. Now, both traditional news organizations and independent bloggers and journalists must pay $50,000 as a one-time license fee, or “performance bond,” and agree to remove “objectionable content” within 24 hours after receiving notice from the Singapore Media Development Authority.
In Britain, the government has called on major Internet companies, including Facebook and Twitter, to self-censor “harmful material” as part of a crackdown on online pornography. This may seem innocuous, but legitimate websites are being trapped in the British dragnet, such as a political party site and a retailer because it contained images of underwear.
The Internet and the devices it enables are the ultimate forum for free speech, but the expansion of state-sponsored electronic censorship is undercutting democratic progress.
There are, however, options for fighting back. Investment in the development and deployment of advanced communications technologies is the most effective way to empower journalists and arm freedom-seeking citizens. Doing so will also send a powerful signal to the world that the United States stands for a free, available and open Internet. Yet the amount our nation spent last year on Internet freedom is embarrassing — about one-third of 1 percent our federal information technology budget.
It’s time to put actions behind the words Clinton delivered so passionately and finally commit significant funding to the research, testing and deployment of technologies that allow citizens to freely communicate in the face of repressive censorship. Technology is not the only answer to advancing global democracy, but it is the most powerful and cost-efficient weapon currently at our disposal.
— Craig A. Newman
Special To The Washington Post.