Skip to Content

Global Internet Freedom Through Government Leadership

The Election of the Century is just a day away. Lots of things are on the electorate’s mind, but we here at CDT hope the next president – whomever he is – devotes considerable attention to one last major issue: global Internet freedom.

What is Global Internet Freedom?

Whether you call it global Internet freedom, digital human rights, or something else, it’s the idea that governments around the world will not interfere with the free flow of information and ideas on global communications networks, particularly the Internet. It’s the idea that governments will respect, regardless of the medium of communication, the universally recognized human rights of freedom of expression and privacy enshrined in global documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s the idea that governments won’t directly or indirectly (for example, by putting pressure on technology companies) block, take down, or otherwise engage in censorship of online content, and access users’ personal information, conduct electronic surveillance or persecute cyber dissidents and citizen journalists. However, many governments are successfully remaking the Internet into a tool of government control. They recognize that the Internet has become a global communications medium that fuels both economic growth and democratic reforms. The global Internet’s inherent openness and lack of central control is particularly threatening to authoritarian countries and those with weak rule of law and poor human rights records. Such countries want to harness the Internet’s economic power while limiting the personal freedoms the medium bestows, and are making significant strides to do so.

The U.S. Has Not Led By Example

As a superpower, the United States must show global leadership and be an outspoken opponent of Internet repression. But we can’t just be a leader in words; we must also be a leader in deeds. It’s no secret that other nations look to the U.S. and our Western allies to define and make more concrete “human rights” through our policies and actions. Yet a huge problem with the Bush Administration is that it has spoken out of both sides of its mouth: for example, decrying the human rights record of the Chinese government before the Olympics while defending NSA warrantless wiretapping and the abridgement of rights of Guantanamo Bay detainees. While it’s commendable that the State Department launched the Global Internet Freedom Task Force in early 2007, other countries aren’t going to take this U.S. government initiative seriously when we don’t respect the individual liberties of Americans or others in our care.

New Administration Should Promote Internet Freedom At Home and Abroad

The next president should set a positive example for the rest of the world and promote here at home freedom of expression and privacy in digital communications. Many countries look to the U.S. for leadership on Internet policy. When the U.S. government, either through executive action or legislation, impinges on online free speech or lowers or evades standards and procedures for surveillance, it undermines efforts to improve Internet freedom around the world. U.S. Internet policy must set a standard for the world with respect to protection of civil liberties.

The next president should actively promote Internet global freedom using all tools at the government’s disposal. This includes unilateral negotiations and multilateral forums such as the United Nations, Internet Governance Forum, World Trade Organization and International Olympic Committee. The next President should also make Internet freedom an explicit part of international trade and foreign aid policies, directing the Departments of State and Commerce to push nations seeking favorable trade deals or U.S. financial assistance to adopt sound Internet policies.

The next president should encourage U.S. Internet and communications companies to adopt and adhere to a strong set of global human rights principles. U.S. technology companies are increasingly faced with government demands to assist with censorship and to turn over personal information about users, putting free expression, privacy and liberty at risk. While there is significant disagreement about whether legislation like the Global Online Freedom Act is the right remedy, there is widespread agreement that technology companies need a set of global principles – such as those in the newly launched Global Network Initiative – to guide them when faced with laws, policies and practices that compromise free expression and privacy worldwide.

These “to-dos” are consistent with both candidates’ platforms. Promoting global Internet freedom is consistent with Sen. Obama’s campaign commitment to renew American diplomacy and to protect the First Amendment right to free speech and the right to privacy on the Internet. Similarly, Sen. McCain has pledges to ensure personal security and privacy in the digital age. Regardless of who wins the election, the next president must make the promotion of global Internet freedom a non-partisan priority. A vow from the highest reaches of the U.S. government to uphold the digital human rights of freedom of expression and privacy on the Internet and other communications technologies will echo throughout the world. Repressive regimes will be put on notice that the U.S. government holds itself to a high standard and expects other governments to follow suit. This will not only be good for the advancement of human happiness and dignity, but may also be good for U.S. national security as global economies and democracies grow, and as citizens and governments alike recognize the value of a truly open and free global Internet.