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Internet freedom is critical

Internet freedom is critical

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In rural Cambodia, the internet is playing a crucial role in helping young people with their education.

Opinion
Carol A Rodley

Just over a year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a global commitment to internet freedom.  She has now addressed the issue again in a major speech on the subject.

Based on the universal human rights framework, internet freedom – or as Secretary Clinton deemed, the freedom to connect – applies the freedoms of assembly, expression and association to cyberspace. 

Today, as we look around at world events, this commitment is more important than ever.  By preserving these rights in the digital era, we preserve the promise and the possibility of the internet as a platform for ideas, innovation, connection and economic growth.

Against the backdrop of Egypt and the largest internet shutdown of our time, we have heard numerous calls to honour the freedom to connect, in particular to seek and share information over the internet, from President Obama and Secretary Clinton as well as leaders around the world.  

The internet has become the public sphere of the 21st century – it is the global town square. Here in Cambodia, the government has repeatedly stated its commitment to internet freedom. Internet use in Cambodia has risen over 1,700 percent in 10 years, with over 170,000 users now online.  Internet cafes have sprouted up in all the major cities.

And the fact that the Cambodian economy has grown so quickly during that same period is no coincidence. As people gain economic security they seek additional opportunities to connect with each other, and ensuring those opportunities are available will contribute to further growth.  

Cambodians and people around the world come together every day on the internet to connect to one another, sample a universe of news and information, or make their voices heard. And through this discourse, be it online or in person, new dimensions of debates that we have been having for centuries emerge: how best to govern, administer justice, pursue prosperity and create the conditions for long-term progress, both within and across borders.  

The connectivity that the digital age fosters has only added new urgency to how we address these age-old issues. The choices governments make today will determine the face of the internet in the future and they will not be easily made.  

The choices we face are familiar, but the space in which we confront them is not. How do we protect: liberty and security? Transparency and confidentiality? Freedom of expression, while fostering tolerance and harmony?

First, too often liberty and security are seen as mutually exclusive, but we must have both to have either, both online and offline. We are reminded daily of both the promise and the peril of the information age.
We must have enough security to enable our freedoms, but not so much as to endanger them. In the balance between liberty and security, the fulcrum is the rule of law.

Our allegiance to it does not vanish in cyberspace. Neither does our commitment to civil liberties. The United States is equally determined to track and stop terrorists and criminal activity online and offline. In both spheres, we pursue this goal in accordance with our values. It is no secret that “security” is something invoked as a justification for limiting internet freedom.

Arresting bloggers, prying into the peaceful activities of citizens and limiting or closing off access to information does not make a society more secure for the long term. Silencing ideas does not make them go away.  Second, we must protect both transparency and confidentiality. Transparency is critical. We can and should give citizens information about their governments.

But confidentiality is also paramount. It protects the ability of organisations and governments to carry out their missions and best serve the public interest. Governments do have a higher standard to meet when invoking confidentiality, because they serve the public. But all governments require some degree of confidentiality when dealing with matters such as public safety and national security.  

For example, it would not be sensible to publish on the internet details of sensitive negotiations between countries on how to locate and dispose of nuclear materials or how to combat the violence of drug trafficking networks.

Third, we must seek to protect free expression while at the same time fostering tolerance. Just like a town square, the internet is home to every kind of speech: false, offensive, constructive and innovative. With an online population of more than 2 billion people that is rapidly growing, the diversity of speech online will only proliferate.   

As stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all people have the right to freedom of expression. The challenge is to support freedom of expression online while emphasising the importance of tolerance, respectful discourse and peace. We believe the best way to do this is to promote more speech, not to limit it. Exposing and challenging offensive speech, rather than suppressing it, allows for public scrutiny and response. In the marketplace of ideas, those ideas with merit will become stronger and those without merit will in time fade away.

The principles of internet freedom are rooted in the openness of the platform, the internet should remain an engine of ideas, innovation and economic growth. Open markets for new products and services catalyze entrepreneurship, innovation and investment.  We have seen the benefits of investment and innovation in the global internet marketplace flow to those nations that make openness the hallmark of their internet policy.

As we move forward and the universal town square of the internet continues to flourish, we are confident that we can protect and advance the principles of liberty and security; transparency and confidentiality; and free speech and tolerance. Together they comprise the foundation of a free and open internet.

Carol A Rodley is the United States Ambassador to Cambodia.

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