Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Why I Don’t Believe in “Net Freedom”

For the past two weeks, Tunisia has been racked with unrest following the December 17 self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young, educated vendor whose produce stand was confiscated because Bouazizi failed to show a permit.  The protests sweeping the country have resulted in further censorship from authorities, whose stronghold on the Internet has increased as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are blocked.

In the past year since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought Internet freedom to pertinence in her much-lauded speech at the Newseum, the rhetoric surrounding net freedom has continued to focus mainly on Iran and China.

Though Tunisia has always been part of the rhetoric–Clinton mentioned it twice, in reference both to increased filtering and to the effects of censorship on business–it has never been at the forefront of the net freedom discussion, despite evidence that its censors are among the most sophisticated and the most pervasive in the world.  Despite being under the guise of democracy (not unlike Iran) and secularism (not unlike Syria), Tunisia censors media and Internet at the surface level, and also regularly imprisons those who speak out or protest against the regime, including bloggers (in 2009, Tunisia was ranked by CPJ as one of the ten worst places to be a blogger).

The State Department’s Internet freedom policy, to many, appears generally to reflect broader U.S. policy.  We want to overturn Iran’s regime, so we make special requests to Twitter to ensure it’s not shut down during crucial periods, but we ignore the interrogation and arrests of bloggers in our ally, Egypt.  We want to save the Iranians, so we loosen up export controls to allow junk products like Haystack to reach them, while doing nothing about the similar restrictions placed upon Syrians.  When we look to China, we see business opportunities, and so we focus on strengthening those through freeing up the Internet, while secular allies like Tunisia–which do a great job of faking progress to the world–go largely ignored.

And it’s not as if we can pretend we had no idea: In a recently-released WikiLeaks cable, our own diplomats can be seen referring to Tunisia as a “police state,” with “little freedom of expression.”  We’ve known that, and we’ve said nothing.

The State Department is not the media, but when Hillary Clinton calls out a country (as she has done with both China and Iran), the media listens.  And as of yet, the media has barely touched on either the protests or the pervasive censorship happening in Tunisia.  The Guardian‘s Brian Whitaker (who, to his credit, recognizes what a big deal this is) asks whether media coverage really matters (after all, the media coverage given to Iran did nothing to overturn the regime).  Though I think Whitaker certainly has a point, I think what matters more is the awareness that such media coverage creates.  Two years ago, most Americans knew little about Iran: now they know that a large swath of the populace is fighting against their regime.  Most Americans know very little about Tunisia, but the awareness that media coverage would create would teach them.  And perhaps that awareness would then push people to fight harder for an egalitarian Internet freedom initiative from their own government.

And this is why I don’t believe in the Net Freedom agenda anymore.  If we as a nation truly believed in Internet freedom, then we would focus not only on those countries that might benefit us (a free Iran, a capitalist China) but on all of those nations where citizens are restricted from speaking out.  We would loosen the export controls on Syria–not just Iran–to allow Syrian citizens access to communications and circumvention tools, and we would give our ally Tunisia–secular, egalitarian Tunisia–incentive to stop oppressing its citizens.  If the United States of America were still truly about freedom, we would do these things, because an ally that oppresses its citizens is no ally at all.

12 Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more; the silence is deafening given the many sanctimonious pronouncement the Obama administration likes about democracy in the Arab world.

  2. I would never trust any public diplomacy human rights instrumentalisation anyway. The way the USG has reacted to the Wikileaks publications is evidence enough.

  3. USG policy aside for a moment, there’s an adage that says, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” One of the big reasons the #SOG has such wide-spread, continued support from people that have no pecuniary interest in what occurs in Iran–and, instead, just want to see social justice prevail in the face of a dictatorship that utilizes Islam as a tool of subjugation–is that the #SOG has been that squeaky wheel. It also helps that the Iranian students have used the opportunities between major events in the last couple years to reach out and say, “one of the issues we ran into last time around was x…is there any way to minimize the Governmental impact of x in the future.”
    The other fact that is unique to the Iranian opposition movement is that it is largely student-organized, in a country that has it’s recent history shaped by the student-led revolution of the late 1970′s. Public holidays create a ready-made protest schedule, which serves to keep the movement square in the face of the regime. Unfortunately, it also gives the regime’s intelligence services and paramilitary the template for when to target the student opposition.

    The network tools that both the Iranian students, as well as the Chinese and Tibetan dissident movements, have utilized can–and, one could argue–should, be utilized by other opposition groups (like the Tunisians) to get the word out, communicate within the movement securely, and keep their movement alive…the tools are available and can be adapted for use anywhere. If there are issues getting these network tools in to the people and groups that need them, put the word out and keep it out there as a need. The authorities may be more or less sophisticated in one place than another, but that’s no matter.

    • You certainly make good points about Iran. Nevertheless, the US openly continues to support dictatorships — the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes are the two most obvious examples — when it’s convenient, particularly when such regimes are able to put on a secularized front. Nevermind that the Mubarak regime is doing nothing to stop massacres of native Christians or that the Ben Ali regime is practically a mafia.

      If you’re referring to circumvention tools, they are most certainly being utilized outside of China and Iran and with the exception of the failed tool Haystack, USG and other funding appears to be supporting tools which aren’t developed for any specific country (e.g., Tor, Psiphon); even the GIFC tools, developed primarily for Chinese dissidents and perhaps more specifically for/by Falun Gong practitioners, can and are used outside of China — UltraSurf is extremely popular in Syria, for example.

      “The authorities may be more or less sophisticated in one place than another, but that’s no matter.” Actually, that’s quite a matter – where the authorities are more sophisticated, they’re more successful in blocking different tool nodes. China often blocks the individual IP addresses of different circumvention tools almost as soon as they’re released. And let’s not forget the safety of some of these tools — the reason Haystack was such a disaster was that it was being fed to Iranian dissidents without first having tested the security of the tool. But of course the USG lacked the savvy to bother looking into that before providing the tool with a special license to circumvent its own export controls. Lives were most certainly put at risk by the alpha release of that tool.

      But these tools aren’t a silver bullet. And while I don’t think the USG can necessarily influence filtering policy in other nations (it hasn’t worked in Iran or China, has it?), we ought to be doing more thinking and paying attention to all of the places where filtering is occurring (political filtering, for example, affects some 20+ countries, including thriving democracies such as South Korea and India).

  4. corporatocracy … see the usa through that lens, much that “doesn’t make sense”, does.

  5. Assuming that a government – any government! – is not threatened by the power a free internet confers to citizens (or subjects, depending where you are) is naive.

    I believe freedom is a just cause. On the net or elsewhere.

  6. Western governments have no “moral high ground”. They never have. They show that time and time again.

  7. We write, we read, we listen, we protest, etc… then nothing happens. What is being planned for in the dark rooms prevails, no matter what we do. I am not frustrated, and I encourage everyone to keep writing and expressing thoughts, the $ afterall governs the relationships between governments, that in turn are governed by multinational and oil companies. These are facts and we cannot keep hiding behind our fingures.
    Congratulation Jilian for a well written and meaningful blog. It is my first time to read yours, but definitely will not be the last. You are lucky for being writing from the States, and cannot imagine what could have happened, if you were writing your blogs from Tunisia or Egypt!!!

  8. Must we involve America on everything? I am ashamed of you and your so could internet freedom fighters, you attack everyone including the America you are calling. In a war you must have an ally and you must be concern about the ally needs and wants, you so called internet freedom fighters have also try to destroy and black mail the only Ally (America) we should be having. You blackmail America when you supported Wikileaks. The Wars US is fighting is not the United State Wars, it a war that was supposedly for freedom, but one error, you exposed your only ally, nor you have made him look foolish before others, you have turn her to muck and have expose your nakedness before the sunlight, if America falls, freedom will follow it foot step , you better build your powers, before China takes over; internet worldwide will be censored: you and your freedom fighters will be searched and hunted down like rats. I hope to leave in Siberia by then putting fires on my feet forgetting about the God forsaken Earth. Repent now before it too late, You must constructively criticize the United State, anything more than that will weaken it powers to criticizes others for your freedom.

  9. Marry me.

    Seriously though, glad you express my frustration much better than I can. So you have officially gained a new fan.

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