Briefing on Internet Freedom and 21st Century Statecraft

Special Briefing
Michael H. Posner
   Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Alec Ross
   Senior Advisor for Innovation 
Washington, DC
January 22, 2010

MR. TONER: Good afternoon, and welcome to the State Department. We’re very pleased this afternoon to have with us Senior Advisor for Innovation Alec Ross, along with Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner. They’re here to talk a little bit more detail about the context behind the Secretary’s internet freedom speech yesterday.

And with no further ado, I’ll hand it over to Alec.

MR. ROSS: Good afternoon, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be with you this afternoon. What I wanted to do is just take a very couple – very few minutes to frame and give a little bit of historic context to the remarks yesterday by Secretary Clinton.

Since the – I thought it was appropriate that, if it wasn’t the day, it was off by one day. It was basically a year and – as Secretary of State to a day that she gave that speech. And for me that was significant, because one of the things that, in my opinion, has defined her tenure as Secretary of State is figuring out the way in which we can modernize our statecraft. And we’ve learned a lot in – over the course of this year, and we’ve learned some things that are very positive about the role that technology can play in our foreign policy, and we’ve learned some things that are significantly less positive.

Among the positive things we’ve seen most recently that we have nothing to celebrate right now as it relates to Haiti, I think it should be noted that it was at the Secretary’s direction that the State Department set up the text Haiti to 90999 program, which has now raised more than $26 million. We also saw, looking back a little further, the role that digital communications networks could play getting America’s message out. I think it’s notable that the President’s speech in Cairo was able to reach so many people and reach them so effectively because living in a digital age, we are no longer bound by the strictures of traditional broadcast area – broadcast-era media, so people were able to get mash-ups of it on their cell phones, people were able to see and hear him over the internet.

But we’ve also learned a number of negative things. The past year has seen a surge in al-Qaida and other extremist organizations using global communications networks to recruit young people into their ranks. And we’ve seen authoritarian governments increasingly use networks and infiltrate them, monitor them, and oftentimes shut them down. And of course, a prominent example of this was in Iran, leading up to, during, and in the aftermath of the election there.

I’m sure that you’ll have a question or two about China, because so many of you keep asking me questions about China as it relates to yesterday’s announcement. And so one of the things that I wanted to point out is that according to the OpenNet Initiative and Reporters Without Borders, 21 countries engage in extreme censorship or filtering of political content on the internet. And notably, this does not include countries that filter or censor content for cultural reasons like pornography or what they consider – in quotation marks – “overly secular content.” And 31 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where government heavily censors the internet for political content.

And we find this data staggering. And that is part of what prompted yesterday’s speech by the Secretary, and it’s part of why we’re elevating internet freedom from a piece of sort of foreign policy arcana to something that’s more central to our statecraft and more central to what we are doing.

One of the key takeaways that I hope you all took from the speech was her point that this doesn’t just go to the issue of information freedom, but it also goes to the issue of what kind of world we want to live in. Do we want to live in a world with one internet, one common knowledge base from which we can all draw? Or do we want to live in a world in which access to information and knowledge is based on what country you live in and the whims of the censors in that country?

A number of you know me – those of you who know me, many know me as Obama’s tech policy guy during the campaign. But what I would point out in a way of sort of giving my own historic perspective on this is point in fact, what I’ve really spent the last 10 years doing is focusing on the digital divide. I started a non-profit in a basement about 10 years ago that grew from being four guys with no money and just a handful of ideas into the world’s largest digital divide organization. And for me, yesterday’s announcement was a shift in the history of the internet from the primary concern of the internet being the digital divide, being an issue of access – can one get access to the internet – to today, where I think now the number one problem, the number one issue that we have to address as it relates to our global communications networks is, is that internet open, is it uncensored.

The last thing that I’ll highlight for you before turning it over to my colleague, Mike Posner, is I want to highlight the role of shared responsibility in this. The Secretary spoke, I think very directly to the private sector, not just America’s private sector but global technology and telecommunications companies. And I think that’s indicative of the fact that this is not just a government-to-government concern. Point in fact, I think that one of the things that’s important about internet freedom is it really lives at the convergence of security issues, human rights issues, and economic issues. It’s not one of those three things; it’s all three of them. And as such, the private sector doesn’t play a secondary role within this; they have a primary role to play within this.

And I thought she spoke very compellingly about some of the initiatives that are out there that are working, which I know Michael described one of them. But what I would highlight here, too, is that this is not something we’re going to be engaging on just on a government-to-government basis but also working closely with the private sector. So with that, Assistant Secretary.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Thanks, Alec. I just want to say briefly before opening up, for me and for us, the speech yesterday is really part of a trilogy. In the last five weeks, the Secretary has spoken about human rights, democracy, and development, and the link between the three, at Georgetown in mid-December. She spoke a couple of weeks ago about development, spelled that out more. And this speech fits within that framework.

And in the democracy and human rights development speech, one – there were really three things the Secretary spoke about that I think are reflected in the discussion of internet freedom. One is that our approach to human rights and democracy promotion and development is one of principled engagement. We’re going to engage with the world, and we’re going to engage in multiple ways. This is one way in which that engagement’s going to take place. Both diplomatically, in terms of technical assistance, in terms of training, we are going to be actively involved in promoting the notion of internet freedom.

We also spoke – she also spoke about universal standards and the fact that there is a global – this is not an American discussion; it’s a discussion of universal human rights standards. And again, the notion of free expression articulated yesterday is part of that notion that there is a – one standard of freedom, one standard of free expression that applies across the board to every government, to every country. Everybody ought to be entitled to the same access to information.

And the third thing was to talk about the fact that it’s very hard to change countries from outside. Countries change from within. And when we talk about democracy, it’s a no – it’s a broad notion that says empowering civil society, strengthening the press, empowering women, creating an environment in which people can change their own societies. These tools, these connective tools of the internet, cell phones, are a prime way now that people are communicating within their own societies and communicating with the rest of the world. So this is really a vital piece of what we’re trying to do when we talk about linking human rights, democracy, and development.

Let me just stop there and let’s open up to questions.

QUESTION: On China, I’m wondering if you guys have any reaction or any response to the Chinese rather hostile reaction to the Secretary’s speech.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think what the Secretary said yesterday is that we have a range of relations with the Chinese. There’s a lot of issues on the table, and this – there are some issues where we’re working cooperatively together and there are some issues where we disagree. This is an area that will be part of the dialogue going forward, part of the strategic dialogue, and it’s an area where we really have differences.

QUESTION: Well, it’s going to be part of your side of the dialogue, but do you have any indication – and how is the human rights dialogue with the Chinese going? And more broadly, other than just internet.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, we’re going to – to my mind, it’s part of a strategic dialogue. It’s part of a broader discussion we’re having on a range of issues.

QUESTION: Yeah, but it doesn’t seem like they’re willing to talk about it.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, that’s not true. We’re in the midst of trying to figure out what the – both the form is going to be for those discussions and what the agenda is going to be. There is going to be – there is already a discussion of a range of human rights issues. There is going to be a more formal dialogue in the coming months, which we’re committed to and they’re committed to.

QUESTION: Just one more on the – specifically on Haiti and the internet. I mean, yes, the text messaging donations are all good, but I notice that one thing that the military is doing is that they dropped in or are bringing in 50,000 hand-held radios, AM-FM radios, which is not really internet – it’s kind of old-school technology. Why – or is there any thought being given to building up – I don’t know – cell phone capacity or something there, where you won’t have to rely on a transistor radio?

MR. ROSS: So we have a task force right now that’s focused on technology. We’re working very closely in an interagency process that USAID is leading specifically on this topic. And we believe that it is a priority to be able to restore telecommunications to the island, not just so people can communicate with each other and communicate with loved ones but also be able leverage those mobile platforms to help people connect to services during the recovery.

MR. TONER: Mark.

QUESTION: Sort of a general and specific question, again on China. In terms of carrying out in concrete terms what the Secretary talked about yesterday on internet freedom, there’s been some discussion about whether the U.S. would consider making internet freedom a trade issue in the sense that some of the software that allows the Chinese to do what they do is actually supplied by American companies. Would the U.S. consider putting an export control on that kind of technology?

And the second thing has to do with support for technology that allows people to get around firewalls. I know the State Department has set aside money to support these kinds of efforts. One of the ones that’s gotten a lot of attention is this GIF initiative that’s allied with Falun Gong. It has not yet gotten State Department funding. Are there any – is there any thought being given to giving them some support?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Let me answer the second question first. Our approach – our bureau, DRL, is involved in some of the grant-making and support. And our approach is really that there isn’t one size that fits all. This is a moment where lots of different technologies and lots of different groups and individuals are trying to break the firewall. There isn’t a silver bullet that’s going to solve that. And we’ve encouraged the group you mentioned and others to apply. In fact, we have a request for proposals that’s out that I think closes today or tomorrow. We very much welcome any group that has a piece of this.

But we view ourselves in some ways like the venture firms in California, that try a lot of different things. Everything isn’t going to work. Our approach is we’ve got to try different things in different countries. Technology is a piece. Training is a piece. Diplomacy is a piece. We’ve got to really address this in a multifaceted way, and that’s what we’re trying to do. But they’re welcome, everybody else is welcome to apply, and there’s more money coming down the pike.

MR. ROSS: And to answer your first question, Mark, I think that the Secretary laid out a great vision and series of programs for what we specifically at the State Department are going to do. But we are also now in an interagency process which includes the Department of Commerce. It includes USTR. It includes the White House. So there is going to be a whole-of-government approach to this in addition to what we are doing specifically at the State Department.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) specifically on export controls. I mean, is it – are you saying that because that’s a USTR thing, you’re probably not the right guy to answer? Or would you say as a principle that those kinds of things make sense?

MR. ROSS: What I would say is that what we – what the Secretary made clear yesterday is that we’re elevating internet freedom as a matter of our foreign policy, we’re going to be taking some immediate steps here at the State Department, and we’re going to be working with our partners in the whole of government to make sure that we’re very aggressive in ensuring that there’s a free and open internet.

QUESTION: But does that mean actively subverting the Chinese firewall, the sovereign government’s --

MR. ROSS: I’m not going to expand on the comments that the Secretary made yesterday.

QUESTION: Well, but Mark’s question was to the fact that funding for groups that are trying to get around the firewall – and you are funding that? So in other words, you are – it’s – I mean, it’s --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Let me answer that in a broader sense. We’re working in about 40 countries now with individuals and groups that are, in a range of ways, trying to exert their freedom of expression. In many of those countries – many of those countries, the governments would rather not have a full discussion of their own actions or of human rights or a range of other subjects. It is our intention to continue to work with individuals and groups that are promoting free expression, as the State Department did 35 years ago working with Soviet dissidents who were fighting against governments that wanted to restrict their ability to speak and write and to assemble and to discuss these issues.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Some governments are going to characterize that --


ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: -- in a way that you did.

QUESTION: All right. But your --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: But from our perspective, this is really a question of empowering people in their own societies to speak with one another and to speak to the rest of the world about things that matter.

QUESTION: Well, fair enough, but the Cold War is over and now you seem to be describing the U.S.-China relationship as like, what the U.S.-Soviet relationship was.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I didn’t mention China. I said there are a range of countries in the world where governments have taken the view that they need to constrict, constrain access to the internet. They need to make it impossible for people to get information about – pertaining to those countries, and they need to constrain people within those countries who wish to express their views.

Our view is the internet ought to be open and free, people ought to be able to express their views, and there ought to be a strong society – civil society within those countries that’s able to raise issues of concern.

MR. ROSS: And let me expand on that briefly by just pointing out that we’re focusing on one aspect of internet freedom in the conversation at this point. But point in fact: The Secretary yesterday laid out a broad swath of issues within which she defines internet freedom. So for example, one of the things that causes us a great deal of concern is in countries where young women, for example, who are, quote-un-quote, “caught” using the internet, using social media are then subject to what people call honor beatings and honor killings.

And so while circumvention is one aspect of internet freedom, so too are other aspects of this. So too is ensuring that it isn’t just young men or men who can be a part of the digital age; it’s also the case that, as she pointed out, issues of religious freedom and how that intersects into these issues. So while China and while issues of freedom of expression and censorship are very much topical today, we’re looking at this very broadly, and I think that that speaks to the breadth and depth of the issue.

MR. TONER: Indira.

QUESTION: Just following on that, Assistant Secretary Posner, from our earlier conversation this week, what my understanding was – the $15 million that has already been spent that was from Fiscal Year ’08 goes to these 40 different – has gone to these 40 different countries and circumvention technology is part of that, and these other things that Alec just mentioned as part of that. There’s 5 million additional that’s up for grant now and more that you’re expecting.

How is that – and so circumvention has been part of what you’ve been doing since ’08 – how is that different from the 15 million that the Secretary referred to yesterday? Is that a different pot of money and different from the 10 million that you’re expecting that would allow you to continue these ventures?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. Let me break that down. On our side, there was in Fiscal Year ’08 a grant from Congress of 15 million. Some of that has been spent, some of it’s in the pipeline, some of it is being developed. There’s another $5 million for Fiscal ’09 that’s being – where there’s a request for proposals – as I say, closes, I think, today or tomorrow. And then in Fiscal ’10, there’s another tranche of money.

That’s the piece of it that I’m involved in. I think the 15 million she referred to is there’s a range of other programs in the government relating to some of the promotional things that Alex worked on. That is – our piece is really – is separate. And it is not just circumvention; it really is, to me, a – it’s not one – not only not one size fits all, it’s a lot about training people. It’s a lot about – it’s some about technology. It’s some about encouraging groups that are in danger. It’s a lot about diplomacy, too, for us getting out there and being sure that when groups are in trouble, we provide a lifeline.

So we have a range of thoughts, a range of approaches, and we’re working with a wide range of groups. It’s also not in their interest often to be identified. And so I want to speak in general terms, because the reality is this is – these are activities that governments are not often thrilled about.

QUESTION: Can you quantify how much of that goes to circumvention technology of the money that you’re in charge of?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I honestly don’t know the answer to that. I can try to find out, but I don’t know.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

MR. TONER: Charlie.

QUESTION: Yes. Can we go back to China and the Google issue? I know we’ve heard all the general language from the podium previously from the Secretary about we’re going to talk to them; we’re going to have negotiations. Can either of you tell us exactly what’s happened as – have there been discussions with the Ambassador here? Has our Ambassador there gone to the Foreign Ministry? Has any – I mean, can you give us nuts and bolts on exactly at what levels this has taken place?

MR. POSNER: Not at this time. What I’ll do is – yeah, I’m going to refer you to P.J. P.J.’s got you.

QUESTION: Waiting in the wings. Okay.

MR. TONER: Goyal.

QUESTION: A follow-up – China is concerned: As far as human rights, religious freedom and all this, you have been talking to the Chinese for many, many years and they – actually tells you that – let this off the table; let’s start something else. That’s what they’ve been telling you.

Now, Chinese are crying out for internet freedom. Internet freedom is a concern. Most of the 76 percent Chinese are saying that they favor freedom of the internet. So as far as freedom through internet in China or human rights is concerned, how much control do you have now – earlier question – as far as technology to China, which is – was provided by the U.S. companies? And now, most of the technology companies are in China, so how much control do you have on them?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think it’s important to view the human rights –

QUESTION: (Inaudible), I’m sorry.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think it’s important to view the human rights issue in China in the broadest frame. We have a long agenda, which is an ongoing agenda. These are issues we continue to discuss and will continue to discuss. The internet, cell phones are a means of expressing those issues by Chinese citizens within the country and gathering information about those issues by people in the country, and a way for them to express themselves to the rest of the world. We support their efforts.

We have – we clearly don’t have the control over how that happens. The Chinese Government is very involved in overseeing that, and that’s one of the challenges we face, and it’s an area where we disagree with the Chinese Government. Our view is that there ought to be an open internet, it ought to be global in nature, and people ought to be able to express their views in the freest terms.

So this is going to be a continued diplomatic discussion. As Alec said, it’s also partly the responsibility of companies individually and acting collectively to figure out what their role will be. We need to be working both with companies, but we need also to be clear that this is in the diplomatic and national interests of the United States to be promoting a free internet in China and elsewhere in the world.

MR. ROSS: And that’s part of why one of the things that the Secretary announced yesterday is that there are going to be high level meetings here that are going to be co-chaired by Under Secretary Otero and Under Secretary Hormats.

QUESTION: Are you planning anything at the --

QUESTION: Actually --

QUESTION: -- United Nations level? I’m sorry.

QUESTION: -- to go back (inaudible), just to ask you to speak a little more directly to the Chinese foreign ministry’s written statement in response to Secretary Clinton’s speech. They said flatly that her insinuation that China restricts access to – or restricts the internet or restricts internet freedom runs contrary to the facts. They asked you not to make such groundless accusations. And they also said flatly that it is harmful to China-U.S. relations.

Do you believe that this has been harmful to U.S.-China relations? And do you have any intention of tempering your criticism, even in public, over this matter, given the Chinese unhappiness about it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Look, I think as the Secretary said yesterday, there are a range of places where the U.S. and China have mutual interests. Those interests are going to continue to be discussed. We’re going to continue to work with them. There are places where we disagree. We’re going to put out a report at the end of the month – at the end of next month, our annual report on human rights conditions. Every year, we put that report out. It makes a range of comments about Chinese human rights violations and problems. Every year, the Chinese Government comes back and says that’s an interference.

It is the nature of the relationship. There are issues where we’re going to disagree, but we’re going to continue to speak out strongly and clearly and we’re going to have those discussions. That’s part of what countries do with one another. This is part of the dialogue.

QUESTION: So you don’t think it’s hurt the relationship? You disagree with that assessment by their foreign ministry?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Yeah. I can’t characterize that. I think it is part – it’s an inevitable part of the conversation that we talk about things where we disagree, and we try to find ways to bridge those differences.

QUESTION: Can I – what exactly do you – the broad range of mutual interests; what exactly are those mutual interests? It seems to me you disagree on the internet, you disagree on Iran, you disagree on Tibet, you disagree on Taiwan, you disagree on human rights. Where are these areas of convergence that you have with the Chinese? Maybe P.J. will when I ask that. If there’s one beyond Afghanistan, I would be very interested in knowing what it is.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Well, obviously, there are a range of economic relationships that are important. There’s a range of strategic and security conversations that are important. It’s – these are two very big, important countries in the world and we talk about a wide range of things, and there’s some areas where we really are working together and importantly working together. The strategic and economic dialogue is about trying to strengthen those parts of the relationship in part. Part of it is also to be sure that we’re talking about the things where we disagree.

MR. TONER: Mark. Just a couple minutes.

QUESTION: This is not about China, actually, although China could be involved in it. Someone who watched the speech was pointing out to me that singling out the Egyptian blogger who had been in prison was significant because this is a guy who’s apparently going to go back to Egypt.

And the question it raised in this person’s mind was whether this was a way of signaling that the U.S. would treat bloggers – dissident bloggers with the same kind of diplomatic status that they treat political dissidents of other kinds, you know, for purposes of lodging a demarche against a country, raising it in bilateral talks. I mean, was that also important in signaling a new way of treating this category of people?

MR. ROSS: Yeah. I think that part of what we now know about the 21st Century is that dissidents oftentimes manifest their dissent on our global communications network. So bloggers are a form of 21st century dissident.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: The case is particularly important to me personally because I was in Egypt last week. I met with a number of bloggers, including one who was arrested the next day at Naga Hammadi. And to me, it is important, as we’ve always done, to be raising the cases of people who are challenging official action by speaking out and who get arrested as a consequence. So this is, to me, part – it’s part of the nature of what we need to be doing. And this happened to be a case that occurred in the last few days.

MR. ROSS: I would point out too that the Secretary referenced twice in her speech yesterday samizdat, which we all know are these small pamphlets that were passed out in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. And she specifically likened blogs and social networks to modern-day samizdat.

QUESTION: Just quickly, wanted to ask you that – if you are planning anything at the United Nations level as far as this – all this thing going on?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: I think one aspect that we haven’t talked about here at all is there’s a – as the Secretary said in her speech, there’s the discussion affirmatively about opening up and making sure that internet is free. And there’s a second piece which is making sure that there are – that the internet is protected – privacy – and it isn’t used in ways that are detrimental to security, et cetera, doesn’t promote crimes.

I think we’re looking at both aspects of that in a UN context. We were involved in Geneva at the Human Rights Council in September in co-sponsoring a resolution on freedom of expression. Part of that resolution made reference to the internet. So we’re very much aware of that piece of it and to continuing to use the UN as a forum to make sure that freedom of expression is reinforced.

But there’s also cyber security. There’s also questions of privacy. And we’ve got to be mindful of the right of privacy, but also finding the right ways on a global scale to find the right rules of the road for dealing with the negative and dangerous aspects of the internet.

QUESTION: Just following up on that, does that mean that the U.S. is going to call on other nations to sign that Council of Europe Convention or whatever it is, the one she was referring to that the U.S. is a signatory to? Is she going to call on more nations? And who’s going to be inflicting these consequences that she referred to, the countries and individuals who are hackers need to face?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: Again, we made reference to it. It’s certainly something we’re looking at. I’m not sure at this stage that I can tell you what the next step is on that, but it’s something we’re looking at very closely.

QUESTION: How many countries are signatories to that already?



MR. TONER: We can take that question.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.


PRN: 2010/094