LiveAtState: Internet Freedom and U.S. Foreign Policy

Daniel Baer
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC
December 13, 2011

MS. JENSEN: Hi. Welcome to LiveAtState, the State Department’s interactive webchat platform. We are delighted to welcome all of our guests from around the world. Today, I am joined in the studio by Deputy Assistant Secretary Daniel Baer. He is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Rights, and Labor. And today, we’ll be discussing Internet freedom.

I would just like to give you a couple of quick housekeeping notes. You can go ahead and start asking your questions now in the lower left-hand portion of your screen labeled “DAS, questions for DAS Baer.” We will get to as many of your questions as we can in the 30 minutes we have. And if you would like to continue this conversation after today’s program, you can do so by following us on Twitter and using the hashtag ifreedom.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to you. Thanks for joining us today.

DR. BAER: Thanks very much for having me. Thanks, everyone, for tuning in. I look forward to your questions.

Last week was obviously another big week for the State Department and Internet freedom with Secretary Clinton giving a speech in The Hague, where she laid out kind of the next chapter in what is now a three-part series on Internet freedom in terms of speeches that she’s given. She talked a lot about the questions that are arising these days about the role of corporations in maintaining and preserving Internet freedom. She also talked about the road ahead in terms of building a global alliance so that countries around the world are working to preserve a free and open Internet, including those who have many citizens where the challenges of expanding access are front and center, because we need to preserve a free and open Internet so that once the access has stretched around the world, people everywhere can enjoy the benefits of the free and open Internet.

So it was great to be in The Hague last week for her speech, and I look forward to taking your questions today.

MS. JENSEN: Great. Our first question comes from Slavica Arsova from Press 24 in Macedonia: Since the government in my country is currently preparing a new law on the media that is supposed to also cover the Internet media for the first time, my question would be: What is the United States stand on Internet regulation? And is it legitimate to control Internet media with licensing by the government in order to improve quality of news and security – sorry – security in the Internet sphere. To what extent could the Internet media be regulated, and what are the international practices?

DR. BAER: I think one of the things that – there are many, many details buried in that question. But I think one of the things, as a general principle, that we see around the world is that many times, the rules and regulations that were developed for so-called old media, for print journalism or broadcast journalism, need to be adapted and need to be different when you’re thinking about new media.

And so, as a general principle, I would say that there’s really not a one-size-fits-all here. I think that one of the things that governments, companies, everybody who engages with the Internet has to reckon with it as we come to know the potential new media, the fact that it is, in many cases, unlike old media in that there’s not a single publisher, there’s many people collaborating to develop the message that goes into new media, that old styles of regulation aren’t appropriate, that they don’t work well. They don’t work well from a business standpoint and they don’t work well from a preserving the fundamental freedoms that ought to be preserved online standpoint.

So I think that there are a number of conversations going on in a domestic context in a variety of countries around the world. I think the most important thing is for civil society to be involved, for journalists to be involved, to be discussing what the implications of various new legislation would look like. One of the things that we see very often is that old regulatory boards, et cetera, in an attempt to kind of bring Internet media under their control, take actions that they don’t even under – don’t even predict the outcomes of, so it’s not that there are necessarily any bad intentions, but there can be bad consequences if they’re not fully thought through and fully debated.

And so I think in terms of best practices internationally, the best practice is for there to be a free and open debate about legislation that would impact free speech, freedom of association online, and that it be developed consistent with international principles, with human rights principles, including the freedoms of expression and association and assembly, and that that debate continue and that decisions not be taken in haste. We should be prepared for the fact that these are new situations, that a lot of companies, when they first interacted with the online space, they thought, “How are we going to control our reputation? We used to put out a single brand message from a single advertising agency in a big city, and now, all of a sudden, what somebody says on Facebook or Twitter affects our brand and we haven’t – how do we control that?”

And what they’ve found over time is that, actually, control isn’t the right impulse in this situation. They’ve found that, increasingly, they need to use social media for what it’s best for, which is to get a sense of what people are thinking, where trends are going, what new tastes are, et cetera, and to get early feedback on when products don’t work, et cetera. In many cases, governments can learn from those lessons as well, and so we should be careful about rushing to do anything that might inadvertently close off some of the freedom and openness on the online space.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Sudeep Sonawane from Qatar news agency: What steps is the U.S. taking to set up a global regulatory body for all Internet-related issues like usage, content, uploading, privacy, censorship, and uniform standards?

DR. BAER: The answer is that we’re not taking steps. In fact, we think that a global regulatory body of that type is unlikely to be successful at preserving the freedom and openness that we – that is on the Internet as we’ve come to know it. There are some countries in the world that are pushing for such a global regulatory body, but we think that that would be unlikely to preserve the benefits of the Internet and might introduce significant negative consequences, not least of which would be a fragmentation both on a content level and on a technical level of the Internet in a way that the interoperability and the – what has always been the kind of basic principle of the Internet that what I type into my browser here, what – the information that gets returned when I type in and hit return, ought to be exactly the same no matter where I am in the world. That’s not just a – it ought to be exactly the same because we think the Internet should be free and open; it ought to be exactly the same because that’s the founding principle of the Internet, of how it works.

So the short answer to your question is we’re not taking steps to do that. We think that the Internet has evolved over the last – the commercial Internet, the user Internet, has evolved over the last two decades in a way that is conducive to serving as a platform for international commerce, serving as a platform for sharing social activities, for sharing pictures with friends, emails, et cetera, served as a platform for fostering of debate about issues of politics or culture. And we want to preserve that. And the way that it’s evolved has been through a multi-stakeholder mode of governance, where companies, civil society, and governments work together to solve problems as they arise. And we’re committed to that in the future.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Elena Chernenko from Kommersant: Recently, Western media reported that Russia blocked the U.S. proposal on a declaration of fundamental freedoms in digital space at the OSCE session in Vilnius. But Russian diplomats claim that they were actually ready to sign it but insisted to add one point to this document about the principle of nonintervention of internal affairs of other countries, which they say the U.S. categorically refused to do. Is that correct? And if yes, why is the U.S. against the application of the principle of nonintervention in internal affairs of countries to the digital space?

DR. BAER: I wasn’t in Vilnius, although I was involved with the development of the move towards introducing the fundamental freedoms in the digital age. But I think without getting too deep into what happened there or what didn’t happen there, I think one of the things oftentimes language that on the surface sounds reasonably harmless is often code for unraveling prior agreements.

And particularly in the OSCE context, obviously, the OSCE has a long history. The OSCE is unique, really, among regional organizations in the world in that it recognizes the interconnection between concerns about security, about the economy, and about human rights and fundamental freedoms. And so as with all negotiations within the OSCE, we seek to maintain that interconnection. We seek to not do damage to prior agreements that have reaffirmed that connection. And that is part of what was guiding us in terms of our negotiations on this particular item.

I think that the question about noninterference, when I said that that can be code for other things, one of the things that some countries have used that as code for is allowing massive censorship of the online space or allowing shutdowns on the online space. And for that reason, language like that, when introduced in the context of conversations about the online space, it can be deeply concerning. And so that would be one reason why using language like that in this context would be something that we might have significant concerns about.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Richard Thomas: Recently, in Oman, a royal decree was issued which prevents local media from reporting on anything that could have a negative impact on the national security situation. Do you think that there is a risk that media freedom in the region could be reduced following the social unrest of 2011?

DR. BAER: I think that one of the things – one of the challenges around the world that we see is that there is a – governments have a temptation, I would say – all governments have a temptation – when things are in the process of social change or when people are speaking out, there’s a temptation to want to control that. And so sure, there’s a risk – whenever there’s social change or citizens driving change, there’s a risk that there’s an overreaction from government, that there’s a failure to recognize that actually, stability is more likely to come from societies where people are able to openly debate the course of their own future, to lay claim to their own futures, rather than societies where rights are denied and people are deprived. I think that, sure, that’s always a risk. There’s always a risk that freedoms are limited instead of embraced and secured and protected by governments.

I think one of the challenges that we see around the world is that well-intentioned actions to bring security – and obviously, security is a serious challenge on which we collaborate with many, many partners around the world on a daily basis – what we want to do is pursue security in a way that it doesn’t jeopardize our fundamental commitments to human rights and fundamental freedoms. And I think that’s a practical challenge that we’re capable of, but that means that we have to be careful about how we implement any kind of regulations or laws that are aimed at security so that they’re not overly broad, so that they don’t limit speech, so that they don’t limit freedom of assembly and association, and so that they can preserve security while preserving the fundamental freedoms that – to which we’re all entitled.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Raffaella Menichini from Repubblica: Speaking of cyberspace, most governments, including the U.S., implies a territorial concept that it self-allows forms of territorial restrictions and controls. Would you agree that a definition like the Internet as a basic human right is more suitable to the current situation that would enable an international community to better protect web users in risky areas as well as trigger initiatives to channel economic aids with specific aim?

DR. BAER: A number of concepts in there. There’s an evolving conversation going on on a number of these fronts. Certainly, there are aspects of territoriality that apply if a crime is committed in a certain country. There’s – obviously, crimes can be committed using online tools, just as they can be committed without using them. And obviously, there’s a law enforcement interest within that country, and so there are some aspects of territoriality that extend. Obviously, there’s a fundamental aspect in which the Internet is not territorial and exists as a global space.

You also asked the question about conceptions that have arisen recently about thinking about the Internet as a human right. I think where we have been very clear is that we think that human rights – Article 19 of the UDHR is, in retrospect, kind of amazingly prescient about the protection of freedom of expression through any medium regardless of frontier. And through any medium and regardless of frontier, we think we don’t need new principles. We have existing principles, and we think human rights apply online just as they do offline. And I think that’s the conception of human rights that is most helpful in securing – I mean, regardless of what you think about territoriality, et cetera, certainly human rights are not territorially limited, and so all people everywhere have the right to express themselves, to associate, to assemble online.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Merette Ibrahim from Egypt: I would love to know far do – you support the freedom of expression on the Internet, as you have been against WikiLeaks since the beginning. Don’t you consider it a part of the freedom of information?

DR. BAER: Obviously, this has been a long conversation. I think there’s a distinction to be drawn between freedom of expression and the criticism that was lodged against WikiLeaks, which was – the criticism was that it was based on an act of theft, and theft is not the same as freedom of expression. And also, we expressed our well founded concerns, as did many others, about the implications for this act of theft on the safety of people around the world. I think that what WikiLeaks – the alleged cables and WikiLeaks exposed was – one of the things that’s been lost is that one of the things it exposed was the fact that really, by and large, around the world, what it exposed was thousands and thousands of acts of right-doing on behalf of American diplomats who were working not only to protect the best interests of American citizens but many, many citizens around the world, many, many people around the world, to solve global challenges, to solve problems, et cetera.

And so, no, I don’t see any conflict in our commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association online, and our expression of well founded concerns about the theft on which WikiLeaks was based.

MS. JENSEN: I just want to remind you that if you’d like to continue this conversation after today’s conclusion of this program, you can do so by going onto Twitter and using the hashtag ifreedom.

Our next question comes from Sasa from, Slovenia: How to prevent hate speech online media but also respect – how do you prevent hate speech online and – but also respect the freedom of speech and freedom of expression?

DR. BAER: It’s a real challenge, and it’s obviously a challenge that exists not only online but offline. There – we have a steadfast commitment to freedom of expression, but just because we support the right of people to express themselves, to say what they believe, does not mean that we endorse those beliefs. And I think the way that you tackle hate speech, the successful way to tackle hate speech – nobody has ever stopped thinking hateful things because they were forced to or because their speech was limited. The way you tackle it is by fostering communities of tolerance, and I think that takes enormous leadership over the long term. It takes people speaking out, even when it’s unpopular, to support those who are vulnerable, those who are targets of hate. But I don’t think the answer to fostering communities of tolerance is limiting the expression of anyone.

So I think those are two challenges. One is protecting freedom of expression, making sure that people can have an open debate even if that open debate includes noxious, vile, terrible things. And for those of us who hear the noxious, vile, and terrible things, it’s up to us – it’s part of our responsibility to answer them with fact, to answer then with compassion, to answer them with the kinds of arguments that help build a more tolerant community. And so the second challenge is for leaders everywhere to recognize the importance of tolerance, the importance of combating hate in a way that sees education as crucial, that sees interfaith conversations, intercultural conversations as crucial, so that we can build the kind of social environments where the protections of human rights for everyone are more likely to be real.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Ghana: Is the U.S. happy with the Internet penetration in Africa, and how do we improve it?

DR. BAER: The short answer is no. We see great potential in expanding Internet penetration in Africa. There are great examples coming out of Africa of the things that the online space offers in terms of potential – mobile phones. Both in West Africa and East Africa and Southern Africa, and up north as well, we’ve seen examples of the kinds of innovation, the tool – Ushahidi, which came out of Kenya, was used in – after the earthquake in Haiti to help direct disaster response, and Pesa and other mobile banking ventures across Africa have set an example for how mobile phones can be used to help bring banking services to more people. In Ghana, there’s a – there have been several elections now where mobile phones have been used to help tally votes and help do informal or formal election monitoring. So there’s all kinds of examples of the benefits that the expansion of infrastructure that brings the reach of the Internet and mobile phones to more people can bring.

So the question of how do you get there, the United States, through USAID, is investing in infrastructure in various parts of Africa to help bring the Internet to more people in more places. We’re committed to expanding access as a priority policy goal, as one that runs parallel to protecting the online space so that, as access expands, people can enjoy the full benefits of the Internet.

The other thing, I think that is important is that we – this brings in kind of another side of regulation. We want to make sure that, as regulatory bodies engage with the online space, that they do so in a way that encourages the kind of private investment that will ultimately be responsible for bringing the Internet infrastructure to people across Africa and across the world. We’re talking about trillions of dollars worth of investments that need to be made as quickly as possible to bring the Internet to more people. And making sure that we don’t discourage those investments is an important part of the access challenge. And so we are working on many fronts to expand access around the world, including in Africa.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Shi Xiohan from Southern Weekly, China: We are working on a story about the We the People petition system recently launched at the White House website. It seems to be an innovative step to increase the base for democracy. So do you have some comments on this innovation? And if possible, can you introduce to us some of the U.S. experience in this regard that other countries like China can learn from? Thank you.

DR. BAER: I’m very sorry that I’m actually not familiar with the – I’ve only heard about it, like you have, and I haven’t had the chance to dig in and explore the We the People initiative, and so I don’t have a great comment on that particular one. I think that, in general, one of the things that we’ve seen – and frankly, there are good examples coming out of China, as well as many other places – is that the potential of the Internet – there’s been a lot of focus on the Internet in terms of being a place to organize or for people to come together and plan activities in the offline world. But one of the things that the Internet offers is a new kind of public sphere, a place for people to come together and say what’s on their mind and to share ideas about how government can do better, about a new idea for a business, to share ideas about a particular piece of art or something like that. And so I think that the idea of an online petition about what people want to see in the future is a great idea and one that can be replicated in many, many places around the world.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Stratis Camatsos from (inaudible) Brussels. The EU has come out saying that it is intending to support activists living under repressive governments, who are using technology to organize, mobilize, and exercise their rights. Commissioner Kroes has said that she will present the no-disconnect strategy to help cyber-activists bypass restrictions on their freedom to communicate. What is the U.S. doing to help these activists and/or collaborating with the EU to achieve this goal?

DR. BAER: I was very glad to get a chance to chat briefly with Commissioner Kroes at The Hague last week, where she announced that she was going to be releasing this strategy. And I think it’s great that the EU is undertaking to support people who are having their rights limited in difficult places around the world.

The United States has been committed to that objective as well. By the end of this year, we will have committed over $70 million worth of grants funding to help support people in difficult places, in repressive Internet environments, be able to access the Internet, be able to exercise their human rights online. And so we have funded a range of projects, including technology that helps them communicate securely and freely, as well as a range of training – cyber self-defense training is what I call it – a range of training – we’ve trained over 7,500 activists around the world so that they know what the risks are, so that they can be safe when they’re working online and so that they can make sure that they’re not endangering themselves or others.

Obviously, there are always risks to communicating on the online space. There will always be actors that are trying to clamp down or trying to put people at risk. But we can do a lot to invest to make people safer and to help them be able to exercise their rights online, and so we’re continuing to do that. We’re also investing in cutting-edge research, so we’re trying – we’re very aware of the fact that there is a ongoing cat-and-mouse game that repressive regimes, like Iran or Syria, are constantly trying to come up with new ways to clamp down, new ways to target people. And so we’re investing to make sure that as existing tools become less useful, we have the next generation of tools that are ready to go and ready to support people on the ground in difficult places.

MS. JENSEN: Next question comes from Richard Thomas from Muscat Daily: Former U.S. President Bill Clinton delivered a speech in Oman yesterday, where he talked about e-governance and the advantages of government usage of the Internet to interact with its citizens. Does this help governments become more accountable and accessible?

DR. BAER: I think the answer to that question is it kind of depends on how they use it. There are governments that are not accountable and that don’t respect rights that use the Internet, that brag about how many websites they have, government websites they have that use the Internet. But they don’t use the Internet in a way that it helps them become accountable or responsive.

I think if governments were to recognize the potential of the Internet – and this goes back to kind of something I said earlier – it’s a tremendous tool for governance. One of the fundamental challenges to governing well is that you have to know what the problems are with various programs, with an office in a far off place, what the problems are – people are facing in their daily lives in order to be responsive to them. And the Internet, fundamentally, offers the opportunity for governments to have a better connection to their people, a more real-time connection to their people, to be able to know what challenges they’re facing and to be able to respond in real time.

And so to the extent that governments want to take advantage of the Internet not as a tool of repression but as a tool of doing better by their people, I think there are all kinds of ways in which e-governance can offer a great deal of promise in that regard.

MS. JENSEN: Next question comes from Anthony Yazaki from NHK: What is the State Department’s position on the Stop Piracy Now Act introduced by the House of Representatives?

DR. BAER: The Administration has not yet come up with a position on that piece of legislation. What we have said and what I can repeat now is that certainly the problem of Internet intellectual property protection is one that we recognize. We are committed to enforcing intellectual property protections. At the same time, we believe that that can be done in a way that is not intention – or in violation of our principles and that doesn’t do damage to the dynamism or structure of the Internet. And so we think that the challenge for us, as for other governments, is to figure out how to – practically to sort through, to do the hard work, to do the homework, of figuring out how to guard against cyber crime of all sorts, including intellectual property theft, while also maintaining the freedom and openness of the Internet.

MS. JENSEN: Next question comes from Sanyo Wisdom, a student at the Kofi Annan Peacekeeping Centre for the ICT Training: How can the U.S. bring Internet accessibility to people who are low-income grade, and how are some of the U.S. policies improving the standard of living for these people?

DR. BAER: Where’s the question from again?

MS. JENSEN: It comes from a student, Sanyo Wisdom,a student at the Kofi Annan Peacekeeping Centre for the ICT Training.

DR. BAER: Great. I guess I spoke a lot about a few minutes ago about the ways that we are investing ourselves as a government with partner governments around the world to help expand infrastructure the way that private investment is likely to be the main source of infrastructure development over the coming decade. I think I would reiterate those points.

I think in terms of the promise of the Internet, I think one of the challenges that we see is that fundamentally what the Internet does is it reduces the transaction costs on information. It makes it cheaper for us to share information with each other. And it does that both because you don’t need to put some – a stamp on a piece of paper and send it across the ocean anymore; it can be sent in a matter of seconds over wires, but also because of the way the information is organized. And the way is information is organized is that when I want information, I put out a request and I’m able to find the information that I need extraordinarily quickly, much more quickly than I ever would have been able to before, and that’s a reduction of costs as well.

We think that those benefits are ones that are perhaps magnified in places – many places in the developing world which have in the past been cut off from major information hubs in terms of market information, in terms of research information, et cetera. Those places can now be connected. And so I think we would expect that as the – as Internet penetration grows, as long as we work together to preserve a free and open Internet, as long as we don’t allow some sort of code of conduct that would balkanize the Internet or cut off certain types of content from certain people or anything like that, as long as can preserve a free and open Internet, we think that there will be increases in prosperity in ways that we can’t imagine today but that we have seen. Certainly our experience over the last 20 years has proven that every year, every two years, there are things that we didn’t imagine two years ago that have become the next new thing and that are helping people come up with new ideas, build new businesses, become more prosperous, in places that we couldn’t have imagined not long before. And so we think that that trend will continue, as long as we can work together to preserve the free and open Internet.

MS. JENSEN: We have time for one more question, and it comes – and the question is: What are the responsibilities of the corporations in protecting Internet freedom?

DR. BAER: That is a great final question. I would refer you to the Secretary’s speech last week in The Hague, because she spoke at length about this. One of the challenges here is that the Internet – the infrastructure of the Internet is largely owned by private corporations. Most of us use the tools developed by private corporations to access the Internet. Most of us interact in social networking sites that are owned by private corporations. Most of us use devices – whether it’s a handheld – a mobile handset or a computer – that are made by corporate – private corporations. So to the extent that we are exercising our human rights online or through mobile phones, we’re doing so through medium – media provided by private corporations.

And so they are part of this conversation. And part of what Secretary Clinton said last week was to say you can’t – you may not want to be part of this conversation, but you are part of this conversation because you’re wrapped up in this. And not only that, once you acknowledge the fact that you’re part of this conversation, there are steps that you can take to help people – to help make sure that people can exercise their human rights online.

There are steps you can take that are practical process steps. Companies can take steps to evaluate what are the risks that are involved with our product or our service; what could a nefarious actor use our product or service to do that we wouldn’t want them to do; what kind of procedures or policies should we put in place, internal to our company, so that when we learn about something that is distressing we can make sure that we’re responding in a responsible way and in due course; what should we have as guidelines for making decisions about whether or not to do business in difficult places? All of these things are things that are practical things that companies can do, that many companies are already doing.

And the core message here is that companies that are leaders in the 21st century can’t just wait for instructions, can’t just wait for the next bad thing to happen. They have to be proactive. They have to recognize that there are risks involved, particularly in the ICT space and that they should take the lead in recognizing that those risks are there and foreseeing problems where they can be foreseen, and to implementing the policies and procedures internally that will help them minimize those.

MS. JENSEN: And that’s all the time we have for today. I would like to thank you for all of your great questions, and I’d also like to thank DAS Baer for joining us in the studio today. There will be a full audio and video clip available for your use after today’s program. And if you would like to get the latest information from the State Department, you can follow us on Twitter, using the handle @StateDept, or if you would like to continue this conversation today, you can use the hashtag ifreedom. Thank you all for joining us. Have a great day.