Opening Remarks on Internet Freedom

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Newseum Event Co-Hosted by Netherlands and Google
Washington, DC
December 8, 2011

(As Prepared for Delivery)

Thank you, Maureen. It is a pleasure to be here at the Newseum for this important conversation hosted by Google and the Dutch Embassy and to be linked to the ministerial meeting with Secretary Clinton in The Hague. A special thanks to Google for co-organizing the event, to Ambassador Jones-Bos and to the other participants in today’s program.  We salute the Netherlands for being such a strong champion for Internet freedom, and for making both the event here and in The Hague possible. We are proud to be working closely with them and the other attendees to bring to the global stage this vision, this commitment, and this hard work to protect and advance Internet freedom

It is appropriate that we are here in a week in which we celebrate International Human Rights Day and the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 63 years ago.  Internet freedom derives from universal and cherished rights – the freedoms of speech, assembly, and association and is based on the concept that the same rights that apply offline apply in new online environments. As Secretary Clinton has said, “the rights of individuals to express their views freely, petition their leaders, worship according to their beliefs – these rights are universal, whether they are exercised in a public square or on an individual blog.”

An open and accessible Internet gives people a platform from which to express their aspirations and shape their own destiny. People in every country deserve to be able to take part in building a more peaceful, prosperous, and democratic society. In the 21st century, technology is a powerful tool with which to exercise human rights and fundamental freedoms. As we all know, the Internet, mobile phone networks, and other new technologies are having a profound effect on the ability of citizen movements around the world to organize themselves.

That is why Secretary Clinton has made Internet freedom a priority.  It is a daily part of our diplomacy with foreign governments, part of our conversations with civil society, and part of our interactions with corporations. But this is not just about talk.  Since 2008, we have committed over $70 million for grants and programming to cyber activists working to advance Internet freedom.

Unfortunately, however, Internet freedom is increasingly under threat. Repressive regimes understand the power of this technology, and they are redoubling their attempts to control it. In May, I was pleased to participate in events here at the Newseum to award the 2011 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom prize to Mr. Ahmad Zeidabadi who remains jailed in Iran for his on-line writing.  On my travels, I have spoken with scores of on-line journalists like Ahmad who have used the growth of new technologies to convey messages that were once conveyed through more traditional means.  Whether in Cairo or Cuba, in Beijing or Belarus, we need to speak out against efforts by governments to use advanced technologies to chill free expression, to stifle dissent, to identify and harass digital activists either online and offline. 

Repressive governments used to set up simple firewalls at Internet Exchange Points to block external content from outside their borders. Now they’re using sophisticated software to monitor all digital activity within their countries, and to delete posts and block emails in something approaching real time. They’re using tracking what their citizens do on their phones and computers. They are exerting state control over content, over users, over companies, and over the infrastructure of the Internet. And they’re trying to change national and international legal standards to legitimize a digital police state.

It’s in this context that this ministerial meeting is so important. It is a key step in helping the international community organize to defend free expression, free assembly and free association, in the virtual world. As countries that support Internet freedom, we must continue to expand our diplomatic collaboration to protect Internet freedom in multilateral forums. We must also use this opportunity to coordinate our support for cyber activists and civil society organizations on the ground who are working to promote democracy and protect rights online. We, too, must further develop the conversation about these issues with Internet and telecom corporations, who have such an important role to play in making sure new technologies are an effective platform for people to exercise their human rights.  Working together we can ensure that the Internet is open and free.

Thank you very much and I look forward to the remainder of the program.