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March 25, 2010

The Senate Discovers the Internets
Posted by Patrick Barry

The U.S. Senate has discovered the internets.  Well, kind of.  What actually happened is that yesterday, at a gathering sponsored by CNAS, the Senate’s Global Internet Freedom Caucus launched.  The caucus -which is chaired by Senators Kaufman and Brownback (Having two, soon-to-be retired Senators as caucus chairs seems a tad shortsighted, no?), and has received broad bi-partisan support from the likes of Senators McCain, Casey, Lieberman, etc - will have three main charges: increasing awareness about global internet freedom; highlighting government attempts at restricting internet access; and promoting techniques to ensure access is as free as possible.

One idea that received a lot of discussion during the event was the notion that the expansion of internet freedom in closed societies would lead to an expansion of political freedom.  An analogy made by some of the participants was that just as Voice of America contributed to the opening of closed societies in Eastern Bloc countries, internet freedom has the power to create political openings in places like Iran and China. 

To me, this kind of thinking illustrates why it’s important to carry modest expectations about what the U.S. can realistically do to alter the behavior of other governments.  It’s certainly the case that during the Cold War, the U.S. could use Voice of America to offer a window into a wider world not otherwise seen by citizens of authoritarian countries.  Few would disagree with the argument that opening this window broadened the strictures of what was deemed acceptable politically acceptable in those countries.  However, any impact had by this opening was hemmed in by the autocratic governments' ability to do things like bribe, intimidate or imprison its citizens to ensure that they would not engage as participants in a broadened political discourse. 

The same goes for internet freedom.  When asked about the internet freedom\political freedom linkage, panelist Rebecca McKinnon had what I found to be a pretty insightful response: It depends on what else is happening in the larger environment.  McKinnon pointed out that there’s a tendency to look at this issue only in terms of access, but in most cases, it’s not just the blocking of websites or services that’s the problem, it’s all the other bad things usually done by authoritarian governments.  When governments can remove web content, surveil users, conduct cyber-attacks, control domain-name registration, etc, expanding access is, in most cases, insufficient for the creation of political liberalization.  As McKinnon put it, this is why the internet is not “freedom juice,” which magically results in democratization.  There are limits to what U.S. legislation or diplomacy can achieve if governments are bent on restricting their citizens’ internet activities. 

Still, I can’t help but feel optimistic that a well-formulated U.S. global internet policy could produce meaningful change for people living under oppressive governments.  The growing push to expand internet and social networking access for Iranian dissidents is one example.  A proposal backed by Google to incorporate censorship into the negotiation of trade agreements is another.  Hopefully the creation of the caucus will translate into political support for such ideas.  


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