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Internet Freedom and Human Rights: The Obama Administration’s Perspective
July 14, 2011


Michael H. Posner
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Remarks to the New America Foundation “Future Tense” Conference
Washington, DC
July 13, 2011
Thanks, Jake, it’s great to be here.

I want to thank Slate and Arizona State University for sponsoring today’s conversation on Internet freedom, which I believe is one of the game-changing human rights issues of our time.

And I want to thank Andres Martinez for inviting me here.

I get a lot of speaking invitations these days. But most of them are less cool. Usually the cool invitations go to Ian Schuler, our resident techie in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Ian will be speaking later this afternoon on a panel with Sascha Meinrath about the “Internet in a suitcase” program that the State Department is funding here at New America.

I’m particularly pleased to see here today so many thought leaders, policymakers, journalists, techies and activists. All of you have helped shape this conversation and many have helped governments, including our own, come to grips with the challenges and opportunities posed by these transformational new technologies.

We’re excited about the “internet in a suitcase” project, one of a number of cutting-edge technologies and projects that we’re investing in. It’s part of what Secretary of State Clinton calls a “venture capital approach” to addressing the wide range of challenges that democracy and human rights activists are facing in Internet repressive environments around the world.

By the end of this year, my bureau will have led the effort within the US government to award $70 million in grants. We’re supporting a dozen different circumvention technologies: a “panic button” app for mobile phones; a “slingshot” program to identify censored content that users are searching for in a particular country and fling it back over firewalls where ordinary citizens can get it; and training programs to help activists operating in repressive areas to keep operating, thwart surveillance and protect their privacy. In short, we’re funding a whole slew of tools and techniques that empower users to gain access to information, organize them, tell their own stories and stay safe online.

But this is not just about technology. Secretary Clinton has put Internet freedom on the map as a key diplomatic priority, in our bilateral relationships and in multilateral institutions, including the UN Human Rights Council, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which just held a ministerial on these issues a few weeks ago, and others.

Many of you here today have urged us to not view Internet freedom in isolation, but to wrestle with the challenge of integrating Internet freedom with national security, combating cyber crime, protecting intellectual property, and other vital interests. This is what we’ve done in President Obama’s International Strategy for Cyberspace, which incorporates all of these legitimate interests. This is the hard part – it’s where Americans disagree not only with repressive governments but amongst ourselves. But we all agree on the importance of getting it right.

By now, every government understands the power of ordinary citizens to harness the Internet and social media to organize and express themselves. Some have embraced these new technologies as a way to connect with and serve their citizens. Others are redoubling their attempts to control them.

We are seeing the development of more sophisticated tools for cyber-repression, including filtering, surveillance, anti-circumvention, and network-disabling technologies by government security forces in closed societies.

We’re also witnessing the rise of cyber attacks on the computers of independent media, Distributed Denial of Service attacks on the sites of watchdog groups, and other attempts to thwart the work of civil society.

Before I joined this administration, I spent 30 years working on human rights issues from the low-tech NGO side. So today I want to refocus attention not on the technologies to fight Internet repression, but on the psychology of the repressors.

What causes a regime to perceive the Internet as such a profound threat that it is willing to damage its country’s economy by choking bandwidth, blocking content or even shutting down the network entirely? These are the acts of governments that fear their own people. In cracking down on the Internet, they expose their own lack of legitimacy. But these crackdowns also indicate a basic lack of understanding that free speech – whether it’s supportive speech or subversive speech – is harder than ever to suppress in the Digital Age. And the young people who have taken to the streets across the Arab world this year understand that it isn’t pornography or pirating that is being suppressed. It’s people. It’s their demands for dignity and a say in the political and economic future of their countries.

After all, Facebook does not foment dissent; people do. Twitter only amplifies those voices that have the most resonance, those ideas that people find most powerful. As President Obama said in a speech in Cairo in June 2009 — 19 months before the protests in Tahrir Square — “Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.”

Two billion people now have access to the Internet. That’s a lot of speech to try to suppress. In the next 20 years, nearly 5 billion more people will come online. Will they be joining a true global conversation over a single, unified global network? Or will they be entering a stilted alternative reality of government-approved content on controlled national intranets? This is the vision of the “halal” Internet being advocated by some in Iran, a course that would only deepen the country’s isolation and the Iranian authorities’ estrangement from their own citizens.

So let’s be honest: Governments that respect the rights of their citizens have no reason to fear a free Internet. The Internet didn’t topple the governments of Tunisia or Egypt; their people did. But smart governments are using social media tools to better communicate with and understand their own people — and to deliver services in a more open and accountable fashion. And they are recognizing that free access to tech tools spurs both social and economic progress.

If you really want to address popular discontent, you don’t need an army of censors deleting posts on social media sites. You need a cadre of government officials reading those posts and figuring out how to identify and address the legitimate grievances that are being expressed there.

So don’t shoot the instant messenger! Instead, address the underlying grievances — the corruption, the abuse of power, the environmental degradation, the lack of political and economic opportunity, the daily affronts to dignity by indifferent authorities. More than anything else, it is this quest for dignity that has prompted so many young people to walk away from their keyboards and into the streets to demand a chance to build a better future.

And it is their vision of the future that matters. This administration is working to support them. Our work on Internet freedom is not about messaging; it’s about empowerment. It is up to all the people of each country to build societies in which governments respect not some rights part of the time, but all of the rights of the governed, every day. The role of the international community is to offer support — technological and institutional.

Your generation – the digital natives — has developed new tools with unprecedented potential to empower people around the world to participate in a truly democratic process. The world is eager to see what you will invent next. But we’re equally eager for your help in forging international consensus and setting the expectations needed to support Internet freedom. It will be up to your generation to make this vision a reality for the 5 billion users – by setting the rules of the road on the Internet for the 21st century.

The human challenge of Internet freedom is to use technological tools to build a different kind of relationship between citizens, civil society and their governments — a relationship based not merely upon the consent of the governed, but upon broad participation in governance by all citizens. With your help, we will continue to put U.S. diplomatic power behind that vision of a more inclusive, peaceful and democratic world.

Thank you.