The speech on internet freedom by Secretary of State Clinton overnight Australian time contains some thoughtful observations about the connection between online communication, politics and freedom. It’s also a display of the most remarkable hypocrisy from the Government at the centre of attempts to destroy Wikileaks.
Clinton, or her State Department staffers, are smart enough to understand the essential sterility of the debate over the role of social media in recent uprisings in the Middle East. This is a debate in which the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov have become ever shriller (and ever more reliant on counter-factuals) in attempting to downplay the role of online media in events on the ground in countries like Egypt, even as protesters themselves hailed the importance of Facebook and Twitter in enabling them to spread information about demonstrations.
There is a debate currently underway in some circles about whether the internet is a force for liberation or repression. But I think that debate is largely beside the point. Egypt isn’t inspiring people because they communicated using Twitter. It is inspiring because people came together and persisted in demanding a better future. Iran isn’t awful because the authorities used Facebook to shadow and capture members of the opposition. Iran is awful because it is a government that routinely violates the rights of its people.
Clinton repeatedly refers to “connection technologies”, emphasising that it is what people do when they connect that it important, not the technologies that enables the connection. Calling the internet the “public space of the 21st century”, Clinton says
The goal is not to tell people how to use the internet any more than we ought to tell people how to use any public square, whether it’s Tahrir Square or Times Square. The value of these spaces derives from the variety of activities people can pursue in them, from holding a rally to selling their vegetables, to having a private conversation. These spaces provide an open platform, and so does the internet.
Incidentally, the best account I’ve seen of how connectivity facilitates direct political action in dictatorships is from US sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who in a recent, excellent piece on the social media/Middle East revolution debate discusses, inter alia, how “social media is best at solving a societal-level prisoner’s dilemma in which there is lack of knowledge about the depth and breadth of the dissent due to censorship and repression and a collective-action barrier due to suppression of political organization.”
Clinton of course is unable to get away without addressing Wikileaks. But discussion of government transparency in the Wikileaks context is, for Clinton, “a false debate. Fundamentally, the WikiLeaks incident began with an act of theft. Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase.” That is, WIkileaks isn’t really about the internet, but about a crime. Clinton then goes on to explain that the idea of complete government transparency is unworkable, and that diplomats do a great deal of good work that couldn’t go ahead without secrecy. All of which we’ve heard before, naturally.
The U.S. Government’s ability to protect America, to secure the liberties of our people, and to support the rights and freedoms of others around the world depends on maintaining a balance between what’s public and what should and must remain out of the public domain. The scale should and will always be tipped in favor of openness, but tipping the scale over completely serves no one’s interests
Clinton goes on to make a couple of further points that are of relevance to Wikileaks. She concludes her Wikileaks-specific coments by saying:
There were reports in the days following these leaks that the United States Government intervened to coerce private companies to deny service to WikiLeaks. That is not the case. Now, some politicians and pundits publicly called for companies to disassociate from WikiLeaks, while others criticized them for doing so. Public officials are part of our country’s public debates, but there is a line between expressing views and coercing conduct. Business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own values or policies regarding WikiLeaks were not at the direction of the Obama Administration.
Secretary Clinton also nominates China, Burma, Cuba, Vietnam and Syria as examples where online free speech is restricted and those seeking to express themselves are suppressed – an approach she calls “unsustainable”. She goes on to laud the United States’s own approach to freedom of speech, declaring it is the only workable approach online. “The United States does restrict certain kinds of speech in accordance with the rule of law and our international obligations. We have rules about libel and slander, defamation, and speech that incites imminent violence. But we enforce these rules transparently, and citizens have the right to appeal how they are applied. And we don’t restrict speech even if the majority of people find it offensive.”
These comments constitute a remarkable series of lies and hypocrisies.
- The US Government has regularly harassed Wikileaks associate and internet activist and Tor founder Jacob Applebaum, subjecting him to extensive and, in the end, almost comical seaches of his electronic equipment whenever he returns to the United States. Needless to say, this rather undermines Clinton’s chiding of other governments for intimidating bloggers. Supporters of the soldier detained and charged in relation to the original leaking of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables, Bradley Manning, have been harassed by US Marines and prevented from visiting him, while the Defense Department has been caught out misrepresenting the unusually harsh conditions in which Manning is being held.
- In further contrast to Clinton’s emphasis on “enforcing the rules transparently”, the US Government’s legal campaign against Wikileaks has been secret from the outset. Despite military officials admitting they’re unable to link Julian Assange to anything with which he could be charged, a secret grand jury process in Virginia continues against Wikileaks, aided by a secret Department of Justice subpoena. This was only revealed when Twitter took the commendable step of applying for confidentiality to be removed from a DoJ demand for an extraordinary range of information, including on Applebaum’s Twitter account and everyone who is a Twitter follower of Wikileaks. Clinton’s speech was of course on the same day the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation appeared in Federal Court to seek the unsealing of court records relating to the subpoena.
Oh and incidentally it was the Department of Justice that recommended the law firm Hunton and Williams to Bank of America in order for it to prepare an attack on Wikileaks. We know how that ended.
- In addition to the Department of Justice attempt to conjure up a charge against Julian Assange, the FBI has undertaken an aggressive investigation of online group Anonymous in relation to its “Operation Payback” attacks on Visa, Mastercard and PayPal after their suspension of payments to Wikileaks, but there has been no action, indeed apparently no investigation, of the DDOS attacks undertaken on Wikileaks itself, from within the United States, for which an individual has claimed responsibility. Nor has there been any apparent law enforcement action in response to the plan developed by HB Gary Federal, Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies for Hunton and Williams to attack Wikileaks and Salon’s Glenn Greenwald.
- Clinton’s attempt to dissociate the Obama Administration from corporate decisions about Wikileaks is sophistry of the highest order. It is true that PayPal was caught out trying to blame the State Department for its decision to suspend payments to Wikileaks, when the State Department had not said what was attributed to them by PayPal. But a figure closely allied with the Obama Administration, Joe Lieberman – Clinton campaigned for him when he defected from the Democrats – successfully demanded Amazon sever ties with Wikileaks. Moreover, Vice-President Biden has described Assange as a “high-tech terrorist” – terminology that surely makes it very difficult for US corporations to have any connection with Wikileaks.
- Clinton’s comments about the dangers of transparency in diplomacy – which forms the guts of her straw-man comments on Wikileaks – have already been refuted by her Cabinet colleague Robert Gates, who stated in December that Wikileaks would not do any “serious damage” to US foreign policy, that its effect was merely to embarrass, and that the world would – contrary to Clinton’s claims – continue to talk to the United States’s diplomats. Director of national intelligence James Clapper also recently backed off an earlier assessment that Wikileaks would inflict any harm on the US.
Secretary Clinton’s emphasis in her comments about Wikileaks on how it started with theft, and her complete refusal to address issues around the First Amendment and the Administration’s intention – if it can – to prosecute a publisher, form part of a continuing pattern of delegitimsation of Wikileaks, which includes unsubstantiated claims that Wikileaks trawled peer-to-peer sites to steal documents.
The gap between any government’s rhetoric and its actual practices is always substantial. And yes, Wikileaks was always a difficult issue for Clinton given her previous staunch support for internet freedom, which she doubtless never conceived could come to be a problem for the United States. But her latest speech, with its hypocrisy, sophistry and barefaced lies, widens the gap between rhetoric and reality even further.