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GUEST BLOG: Internet freedom as a foreign policy goal

Published on 28 April 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

In a Foreign Policy article earlier this month, Rebecca MacKinnon has strong words decrying US foreign policy attempts to promote ‘Internet Freedom’: More than two years after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her first speech declaring ‘Internet freedom’ to be a major component of US foreign policy, it turns out that many of the most sophisticated tools used to suppress online free speech and dissent around the world are actually Made in the USA. Even worse, she writes, the US government itself is one of the largest consumers of American-made cyber surveillance tools.  The United States, in this view, is not living up to its lofty rhetoric on Internet freedom

But rather than simply accuse the State Department of hypocrisy and cynicism (as Evgeny Morozov basically does in a recent Slate article), MacKinnon points to a possible solution:  the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), which is currently winding its way through the US Congress, has strong support from human rights organisations, and appears to have a good chance of becoming law.

Or perhaps not? The bill stipulates that the State Department has to create a list of ‘Internet-restricting countries’, which MacKinnon imagines is likely to come in conflict with other US foreign policy goals and strategies. In particular, she states that the list will become politicised, potentially absolving companies that assist U.S. allies in censoring and monitoring political dissent,’ and that ‘the export control section of the bill will create pressure on the State Department to keep the list of ‘Internet-restricting’ countries as short as possible.

In other words, MacKinnon feels that even if GOFA passes, it is unlikely to resolve the inherent tension between the State Department openly advocating Internet Freedom and the reality of the actions of the US government on this issue. On the other hand, she appears to believe that GOFA, by attempting to sever commercial ties between US companies and authoritarian countries, is a good first step in dealing with this apparent conflict. Those who agree with her viewpoint undoubtedly hope that the US will do more in the future to make its deeds match its rhetoric.

steven 4A new post by guest blogger, Steven Nelson, a teacher, trainer, translator, interpreter, and writer.  Steven is a graduate of Mary Washington College (BA in International Studies) and Central European University (MA in Nationalism Studies) and lives with his family in Budapest, Hungary. He has an keen interest in how the Internet is affecting our world and we hope he will be a regular contributor to our site.


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