Casting a Wider Net

Making Internet freedom a condition of diplomatic relations proves difficult.

To live up to the title of Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Obama must rally foreign governments with questionable human rights records to cooperate on trade pacts, border deals, nuclear disarmament and a host of other diplomatic agreements. The White House has had some success enlisting the help of citizens in those countries through social networking and Internet outreach. But in nations such as Iran, where Web use is suppressed, a heavier hand might be necessary. Some stateside civil liberties activists and technology providers say the administration should be placing a higher priority on Internet freedom as a condition of diplomatic relations.

Obama turned to social media to get elected and ever since has relied on the tool to gain support for his domestic and foreign policy agendas. The administration clearly supports the free flow of information over the Internet and has made some strides. In a June overture to Muslim communities, Obama told an audience in Egypt that the United States would invest in online learning for educators and students worldwide and establish a new social network, "so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo." The State Department came through in late September, announcing it will award $5 million in grants for social connectivity technologies-ideally applications that work on the low-cost mobile phones prevalent in developing countries.

Already, State encourages communities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico and other countries that have more cell phones than computers to participate via text message in hundreds of online town hall meetings on topics from land mines in Afghanistan to U.S.-Kenyan relations. The department advertises these discussions through social media outlets and on paper flyers in places where Internet access is scarce.

But such strategies work only in countries where citizens have unfettered access to the Web and other technology. State raises the issue of Internet freedom with foreign interlocutors when circumstances merit, according to department officials. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the department will reinvigorate a Bush administration program-the Global Internet Freedom Task Force (GIFT)-aimed at maximizing freedom of expression and minimizing the silencing of legitimate debate on the Internet in repressive regimes. The United States in April announced plans to offer expanded telecommunications services in Cuba, partly in the hope that would stop the country from squelching political dissent on the Web.

These efforts have not persuaded nations such as China and Iran to stop controlling Internet use, leading some to recommend more forceful tactics such as limiting trade. That is easier said than done.

International trade rules do not address online censorship. Complicating matters, foreign policy often crosses departmental boundaries, requiring separate or combined actions by the Commerce, State and Treasury departments, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and other agencies. It isn't always clear which agency has jurisdiction over Internet freedom.

The State Department typically handles issues such as free speech over the Web, but in one exception, trade officials this summer intervened to prevent China from forcing U.S. companies to install censorship software in products. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk wrote to Chinese officials persuading them to revoke a proposed regulation that demanded all computers, including U.S. computers sold in China, contain a Chinese Internet filtering program called Green Dam.

That worked only because trade rules prohibit requiring American businesses to buy or use products from China in their goods. Also, USTR had concerns about China's secrecy in developing the regulation and about the software's potential security flaws. "In addition to raising censorship issues that fall under the aegis of other agencies, China's measures raised major trade issues that were potentially actionable under international trade rules," says USTR spokeswoman Carol Guthrie.

A Washington trade lawyer, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue, says the U.S. government is limited in pressuring countries on censorship because there is a double standard at play. Most countries, including the United States, restrict online content to some extent, the lawyer says. For example, sharing images of child pornography is illegal in the United States.

Still, some civil liberties advocates say the administration could be doing more to address the Internet-blocking issue. "We've conferred most favored nation trade status on China and Vietnam, but they engage in extensive censorship," says Cynthia Wong, a staff attorney and Ron Plesser fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "We need to make sure our policies aren't working at cross-purposes."

The GIFT Web site offers little information about the task force's plans, Wong says. According to State officials, the bureaus focusing on Internet freedom are working with headquarters on a strategy and will post more information online once they finalize the agenda.

U.S. technology providers are joining the push to regulate censorship as part of diplomatic agreements with foreign countries. "When foreign governments block Google searches or one of our services, they both prevent us from doing business and undermine the free flow of information that lies at the core of the Internet," Google spokesman Scott Rubin says.

State officials say the department addresses the issue in diplomatic communications and encourages the private sector to intercede as well.

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