In January last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a landmark speech entitled "Remarks on Internet Freedom". The speech was noteworthy for its clear and unambiguous rejection of all forms of censorship and network control. Coming on the heels of Iran's presidential elections and Chinese cyber-attacks, it seemed the U.S. was drawing a principled line in the sand. They put their money where there mouths were, allocating millions in funding for projects to help the citizens of the world to circumvent government controls on freedom of speech.
Yesterday Secretary Clinton revisited that theme, announcing the creation of an Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues and pledging a further $25 million for tools to combat censorship. However, while we heard another eloquent defence of the principle of freedom of speech in the online world, this foray is receiving a markedly cooler reception.
The reason should be obvious to any reader of the news; the intervening year has seen Wikileaks spill Clinton's diplomatic secrets across the Internet and the world's newspapers, and has tested the United States' true commitment to free online speech. That commitment turned out to be quite conditional and equivocal. From official quarters condemnation of Wikileaks has been total, and in the rest of the world remarks about Assange ending up in Guantánamo Bay are still made only half-jokingly.
Clinton attempted to address that issue in her speech. She rightly claimed that governments sometimes have legitimate need for secrecy; implausibly compared the diplomatic cables to the secret location of nuclear materials; and wrongly labelled Wikileaks an act of theft, "as if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase". This wilfully mischaracterises Wikileaks' role in the leaks as publishers, not spies.
It's all well and good to claim a commitment to strive for openness in "maintaining a balance between what's public and what should... remain out of the public domain." But who will ensure the balance remains true, if not the media? If publishing leaks is to be considered larceny instead of free speech, then the public must turn to thieves to safeguard its interests when they conflict with the exigencies of political public relations.
Clinton was at pains to deny that the U.S. government was directly behind the actions of the credit card companies in cutting off Wikileaks' funding. Time will tell where the line between strong suggestions of criminality by politicians and official coercion may be drawn.
There's much to admire in Clinton's words both yesterday and last year, and they are in stark contrast to what we hear from our own government. The U.S. can still be a powerful force in pushing for an open internet for all the world's citizens. Unfortunately, this has been severely undermined by their double standard with regard to Wikileaks. Thanks to this hypocrisy, what once seemed principled now seems simply preachy.