Internet Freedom and the Digital Earthquake of 2011

Highlights from Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner’s remarks at the State of the Net Conference (full transcript available here):

“People are using technology as a battering ram against the walls of fear and isolation that dictatorships erect to keep their populations quiescent. In country after country where governments have controlled nearly every aspect of life, people are demanding openness and accountability, as well as jobs and opportunity, using old ways and new ways to make themselves heard. They’ve done it online, and by risking life and limb on the streets; they’ve done it in song and text message, and in videos smuggled across borders when the Internet is turned off.

It turns out that two billion networked users are nearly impossible to silence.

In my world, the world of human rights, this new capacity for instant communication and participation has created an unprecedented dynamic. Let me give you an example. Last week in Syria, Arab League Human Rights monitors complained — unofficially — that they were not being permitted to view protests or interview demonstrators or travel freely to observe events. Yet that same day, anyone with an Internet connection could watch horrific footage on YouTube of wounded protestors in Syria who appeared to be dying on camera.

Syria is not having a Facebook revolution or a Twitter revolt or a YouTube winter. Syria is having a mass outbreak of courage. Tens of thousands of demonstrators know they risk arrest, torture and death if they take to the streets. But they’re doing it anyway. Day after day. Their courage does not emanate from any digital device. It comes from knowing that they are not alone.

So yes, the Internet is empowering. Yet we agree with Vincent Cerf, who wrote in an op-ed piece last month that Internet access is not itself a human right. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are human rights. Technology can enable those rights. Technology is not a substitute for political organizing or advocacy or persuasion. The Internet does not bring people into the street. Grievances do. The Internet did not spark the Arab Spring. Injustice did. It’s worth noting that the Arab Spring did not start because of Twitter. It started because of the heartbreaking decision by one vegetable vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, to set himself ablaze.

Connective technologies are powerful tools for strengthening and amplifying the bonds between people and organizations — for good and for ill. Last year, they enabled terrorists to recruit, and they enabled global cooperation to solve a myriad of human problems by transcending time zones, borders and even language barriers. The same connective technologies that enabled teenage bullies to orchestrate the persecution of their victims also enabled Russian activists to monitor parliamentary elections and then organize huge street demonstrations protesting the unfairness of those elections.

But let me be clear about U.S. policy: We don’t promote Internet freedom or connective technologies as a means of promoting “regime change.” We promote the freedoms of expression, association and assembly online and offline because these universal freedoms are the birthright of every individual. Human rights and human dignity are not bestowed upon people by groups or governments, and no government should feel empowered to deny them. It is up to every individual — and therefore the people of every country — to decide how to exercise them.

Let me state for the record that international law applies to online behavior. Full stop. We do not need to reinvent international human rights law, or our enduring principles, to account for the Internet. No deed is more evil — or more noble — when it is committed online rather than offline. You can’t sell child pornography in Farragut Square or Tahrir Square, and you can’t sell it on the Internet, either. You can’t break into a theater and steal the movie reels and you can’t steal movies online, either. You can’t beat up and gag a peaceful protestor and you can’t jail her for a blog post criticizing a government policy, either.

Now, I said earlier that we agree that no one has a human right to any particular technology. But at the same time, we believe that creators and purveyors of technologies have a responsibility to respect human rights through their products and their practices. Moreover, the responsibility of corporations to respect human rights extends far beyond the creators of a given technology. It is the responsibility of every company.”

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