British Prime Minister David Cameron transformed his domestic challenges into a potential problem for the Obama administration when he floated the idea last week of limiting social-media services to help subdue violence in his country, a proposal that made web-freedom activists on both sides of the Atlantic blanch.
The U.S. is the most ardent proponent of so-called “Internet freedom” worldwide, advocating that governments should not censor the web or block access. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has helped transform the nascent idea—once the province of online activists, human-rights advocates, and the Silicon Valley intelligentsia—into a tenet of U.S. foreign policy.
Given the backdrop, Cameron’s remarks presented a problem. The State Department has chosen to say exactly nothing in public after its close ally—one that has stood by the U.S. in promoting web freedom—began discussing restrictions on Twitter and Facebook. Are Internet freedom activists fuming?
Actually, no. Instead, they are endorsing the Obama administration’s “wait-and-see” approach and even calling it shrewd.
That’s in part because Clinton has earned a sterling reputation among web-freedom activists, who say they trust her judgment.
She has carried the torch for Internet freedom in major policy addresses, funding for technologies that help foreign Internet users circumvent censorship, and by embracing a role in conflicts between U.S. Internet companies such as Google and Change.org and foreign actors, most notably the Chinese government.
“The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace,” Clinton said in a February speech after Egypt's then-President Hosni Mubarak cut off Internet access there in the face of massive youth protests.
She has strongly and publicly censured foreign countries—repressive regimes and allies alike—that have tried to limit online communication. The State Department has taken a strong public stance in condemning nearly every new breach of online communication during Obama’s presidency. But State has said nothing in public on Cameron’s controversial comment.
That’s OK with Internet-freedom activists, who say they are comfortable with the U.S. approach.
Andrew McLaughlin, the former deputy chief technology officer for Obama and a former Google executive, said that coming down too hard on Cameron for remarks he made while the country was still reeling would be like criticizing the U.S. on the day after September 11, a moment when it was more appropriate to express support and solidarity.
“In the heat of the immediate aftermath of a massive social catastrophe, politicians say things that maybe later, when they think about it, they aren’t going to pursue,” said McLaughlin, a vocal proponent of Internet freedom. “You give your friends a little bit of breathing space. A wait-and-see approach is appropriate, but I don’t think you cut them any slack in the long term.”
Emily Butselaar of Index on Censorship, a British group promoting freedom of expression and Internet freedom, noted that Cameron's comments may not lead to actual policies, especially after the police did not express a strong desire for new powers to limit social media.
“I feel confident the U.S. government would speak out if it got to the stage where it were a serious parliamentary proposal,” Butselaar said. “It probably felt to [the State Department] like mere political hyperbole.”
Cynthia Wong, the director of the Project on Global Internet Freedom at the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, emphasized that the State Department’s track record on this issue is hard to criticize.
“They made the U.S. one of the first countries to put Internet freedom squarely within the priorities of government,” she said. “I’m comfortable with them waiting to see what the U.K. government does.”
But she emphasized that speaking up against real breaches to Internet freedom is paramount “even with our allies.”
While the State Department may have navigated the situation without irking activists, net-freedom proponents are still incensed at Cameron.
In particular, they fret about how the remarks have sparked commentary in China—which is infamous for its closed approach to the web—suggesting the world’s democracies are beginning to figure out that Internet freedom is an unsustainable policy.
The British saga shows that “advocates of an unlimited development of the Internet should think twice about their original ideas,” said the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party outlet, in an editorial last week.
McLaughlin said such commentary from the Chinese is a “lesson” for democratic politicians.
“When you see the Chinese gleefully citing you to prove that Internet freedom is a bad idea, it is a good reason to think twice and not turn to that kind of [rhetoric] even in crisis moments,” he said.