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“Internet Freedom” as Foreign Policy?

Middle East expert Marc Lynch has some valuable thoughts on American efforts to use “internet freedom” to promote its foreign policy interests, particularly in Iran.

He compares a speech by Hillary Clinton, “outlining America’s commitment to ‘internet freedom,'” with an article published the same day “by two key Bush administration public diplomacy officials, James Glassman and Michael Doran, calling on the U.S. to use the soft power of the internet to promote regime change in Iran.”

    “[For] Glassman and Doran, who both held important public diplomacy positions in the previous administration and have long been enthusiastic advocates of using the internet…the point is not abstract, universal freedoms — it is using those tools against an adversary. They urge the U.S. to use the new media to undermine the Iranian regime and to help the Green Movement by providing moral and educational support….
    “Set aside the question of whether these steps would work to undermine the Iranian regime or strengthen the Green Movement…. The key point here is that internet freedom…[is] clearly and unapologetically a weapon to be wielded against the Iranian regime. For better or for worse, most of the world probably assumes that Clinton has the same goal in mind…even if she doesn’t say so. And that’s a major problem if you think about it. When the U.S. says to Iran or to other adversarial regimes that it should respect ‘freedom of internet expression’ or ‘freedom of internet connectivity,’ those regimes will assume that it is really trying to use those as a rhetorical cover for hostile actions. And if Glassman and Doran have their way, they will be right.”

Lynch goes on to describe the “moral hazard” involved if the U.S. is unwilling or unable to look out for those who might take Clinton’s words at face value.

    “It’s great to support and encourage internet activists and protestors of all sorts. But such support can lead them to take some very risky, dangerous activities against their brutal governments, perhaps in the expectation that the United States will protect them from the consequences. Will it? If a blogger inspired by Clinton’s speech decides to launch a corruption monitoring website, and is summarily imprisoned and tortured, does the U.S. have any plan in place to protect her?”

While I share Clinton’s hope that “the freedom to connect…can help transform societies,” Lynch shows the danger of looking at the world solely through a prism of American interests. American words and actions have consequences, to real people outside the U.S. If “internet freedom” is treated as an arm of American foreign policy in which activists are used and then abandoned, it will make the U.S. look like a cynical manipulator and a feckless hypocrite. If, however, the commitment is real and for the long term, it will mean supporting the internet’s many voices even when they are saying what America doesn’t want to hear.

Comments

Comment from Bill Day
Time: January 23, 2010, 15:22

Moreover, if Internet freedom, as an extension of freedom of expression, is a value in itself, then casting it as a weapon of U.S. foreign policy undermines the very value we should be trying to promote. No country which regards the Internet as a trojan horse for U.S. subversion is going to willingly allow greater freedom within its borders.

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