The U.S. Department of State will launch several new initiatives focused on fighting Internet censorship, including working with businesses and other groups to develop mobile applications that help residents of countries with repressive governments report problems, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday.
The State Department will also sponsor an innovation competition looking for new ways to connect residents of other nations to Internet services, and it will support new circumvention technologies for dissidents whose connections to the open Internet are blocked, Clinton said during a speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
“Both the American people and nations that censor the Internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote Internet freedom,” Clinton said. “We want to put these tools in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics.”
Clinton’s speech came nine days after Google announced that it may exit China because of cyberattacks originating from the country that appeared to be an attempt to silence or spy on human-rights activists there. State Department officials have said Clinton’s speech was not a reaction to Google’s announcement, but Clinton referenced Chinese censorship several times in her speech.
The State Department wants the Chinese government to conduct a comprehensive and “transparent” investigation of the Google complaints, Clinton said.
China and other countries that censor the Internet run the risk of being left behind in the world’s economy, Clinton said. Businesses operating within repressive governments are at a disadvantage because they don’t have the same access to information as competitors from other countries, she said.
“Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century,” Clinton added.
Nations that censor the Internet also foster instability, and violent dissent in many nations is driven by anger that residents can’t express their frustrations, she said. “Historically, asymmetrical access to information is one of the leading causes of interstate conflict,” she said.
Clinton also called on U.S. businesses, particularly media providers, to fight censorship in the countries where they operate. Customers need to trust that media and search companies are providing the best information available, not censored results, Clinton said.
“Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company anywhere,” she said. “American companies need to make a principled stand. This needs to be part of our national brand.”
The new State Department Internet freedom push, part of the agency’s 21st Century Statecraft initiative, will ask businesses, educational institutions, nonprofit groups and others to develop new Internet and mobile applications to aid freedom of expression, Clinton said. Although she didn’t provide a lot of details about the initiative, Clinton gave examples of applications that would help users rate government agencies for response and efficiency or report corruption.
Such tools could help the State Department target aid to governments, Clinton said.
The new initiative will help fund mobile applications, and the agency will launch an innovation competition that encourages technology that breaks down language barriers, helps citizens get access to services and combats illiteracy, she said.
Freedom of expression online will be a top priority of the State Department going forward, Clinton said.
“Ultimately, this issue isn’t just about information freedom — it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit,” she said. “It’s about whether we live on a planet with one Internet, one global community and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors.”