Clinton: We Love Net Freedom, Unless It Involves WikiLeaks

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech today at George Washington University about Internet freedom, an updated version of the address she gave a year ago calling for more openness and an end to foreign governments repressing their citizens through the ‘Net. As it was then, Clinton’s speech was a heart-warming defence of the open Internet and the need for freedom of speech — with one notable exception: namely, WikiLeaks. While other governments need to be lectured by the U.S. on how to be more open and free, apparently it’s fine for the U.S. government to persecute a web-based publisher that is widely viewed as a journalistic entity, and is run by someone who isn’t even an American citizen.

Much of the speech was eminently supportable — the parts where the Secretary of State called the Internet “the public space of the 21st century—the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee-house, and nightclub,” or where she called on foreign governments to “join us in a bet we have made — a bet that an open Internet will lead to stronger, more prosperous countries” (there’s a transcript of her address available at Scribd). The former senator even waded into the debate over what role social media tools have played in the uprisings in Iran and Egypt, and provided a summary that could have been written by a social-media skeptic such as Malcolm Gladwell. She said:

Egypt isn’t inspiring because people 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; it is awful because it is a government that routinely violates the rights of its people.

That said, however, the Secretary of State also went out of her way to defend the U.S. government’s approach to WikiLeaks, which has involved not only imprisoning the man who allegedly leaked thousands of diplomatic cables (former Army officer private Bradley Manning), but also going after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange by any means available. The U.S. Department of Justice has been working on a legal case involving the Espionage Act, despite the fact that publishing classified documents is not actually a crime under U.S. law, Plus, if the DOJ is successful, the same charges would apply to the New York Times and other media outlets who have also published the cables.

A Speech on Freedom, and a Court Order for Twitter

As part of its case, the government sent a court order to Twitter — and apparently to other web companies such as Google (s goog) and Facebook, although they have not admitted as much publicly — demanding that the company turn over a wide variety of personal information about Icelandic MP and early WikiLeaks supporter Birgitta Jonsdottir, hacker Jacob Appelbaum and a number of others involved with WikiLeaks. The government order covers not just IP addresses, and therefore locations, but also private messages, methods of payment and other materials. Jonsdottir and others named in the order are fighting these demands in a case that, ironically, was heard today.

And how did Secretary Clinton justify these moves against WikiLeaks? She said that one of the principles the U.S. upholds is the need for transparency, but that this must be balanced with the need to protect confidentiality, and in particular, government confidentiality. Clinton said this has been a topic of debate because of WikiLeaks, but added that:

It’s been a false debate in many ways. 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. Some have suggested that this act was justified, because governments have a responsibility to conduct all of their work out in the open, in the full view of their citizens. I disagree.

The Secretary of State argued that by publishing the cables, WikiLeaks exposed diplomats and activists “to even greater risk” — despite the fact that no one has made any credible claims that the cables published by either WikiLeaks or media outlets such as the New York Times have put anyone in danger. Clinton said in her speech that denouncing WikiLeaks “does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom,” but on that point she is almost certainly wrong. And she seemed unfazed by the fact that her comments about targeting WikiLeaks came right after she censured foreign governments for attacking bloggers instead of upholding their rights to freedom of speech.

It’s obvious that while the U.S. government is content to preach to foreign countries like China about how they need to open up, it’s more than happy to go after WikiLeaks using whatever means necessary — despite that what the organization did isn’t even a crime. That’s called trying to have your cake and eat it too, and it makes all of Secretary Clinton’s stirring talk about freedom difficult to take seriously.

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Post and thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user Giuseppe Bognanni