A promise the White House made in the cyberspace strategy released Monday encouraging "people all over the world to use digital media to . . . share information . . . [and] expose corruption" indicates the ascendancy of a camp inside the Obama administration that favors making a priority of Internet freedom, experts told Nextgov.
President Obama reiterated some of those points in a speech Thursday about U.S. policy in the Middle East, saying the United States will support "open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard -- whether it's a big news organization or a blogger."
There's been long-standing tension in U.S. foreign policy between officials who see the Internet primarily as a tool for promoting government accountability and an active civil society abroad and those who see it as a threat to other U.S. interests such as a stable copyright regime, according to Robert Guerra, director of the advocacy group Freedom House's Project on Internet Freedom.
Proponents of an open Internet, mostly at the State Department, see it as a tool dissidents can use to organize protests, publicize their missions and communicate with the outside world, Guerra said. That position was reinforced by the recent uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa that were aided by social media.
Critics of pure openness, many of them at the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, are concerned that an open Internet will undermine intellectual property protections and hamper U.S. exports of items such as DVDs and software, he said.
The problem with that position, Guerra and other Internet freedom advocates say, is that the tools U.S. businesses and others use to prevent would-be infringers from posting copyrighted material online are often the same tools repressive governments use to identify, track, shut down and sometimes arrest and imprison anti-government bloggers and activists.
"What the [cybersecurity] strategy is saying is, going forward, we can't do these two things in isolation," Guerra said. "Some balance has to be struck . . . Internet freedom isn't just a State issue, but has to be seen through the prism of other departments as well.
"It will be interesting to see if [after] some of these values are placed in the cybersecurity statement, if [government officials] look at some other policies and say, 'Do these comply with the values we've put forward?' " he said.
The Internet freedom section of the government's International Strategy on Cybersecurity commits the United States to encouraging and supporting activists' freedom online and to opposing government censorship or tracking of dissidents' online activities.
The strategy also says the United States will "work to encourage governments to address real cyberspace threats, rather than impose upon companies responsibilities of inappropriately limiting either freedom of expression or the free flow of information."
That may be a swipe at Google, which agreed in 2006 to censor some pro-democracy results in its Chinese search engine before reversing itself in 2010 and then scaling back its Chinese operations after a series of cyberattacks were allegedly launched against the company from inside China.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced full U.S. support for a worldwide open Internet in a major policy speech at The George Washington University in February, saying her policy is to "continue to help people in oppressive Internet environments get around filters, stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online."
That speech came just days after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned after an Internet-aided uprising against his three-decade-old regime.
In the same speech, Clinton announced State would hand out $25 million in grant money to organizations aiding a free and open Internet abroad, including sites that build anti-tracking software.
State earlier fully funded a Freedom House study of the most effective tools activists were using to circumvent censorship in four states known for an oppressive Internet regime: Iran, China, Myanmar and Azerbaijan.