New U.S. Policy on Internet Freedom Abroad Raises Questions About Policies Back Home

As most major news media outlets have reported this week, including The New York Times (see article here), the Obama administration just announced its new Internet freedom policy to help Internet users worldwide circumvent government-imposed firewalls and censors, help them secure their e-mail from surveillance or, in the case of demonstrators, help them delete incriminating data from cell phones or other devices if they are detained by police. The idea – especially in light of recent mass protests in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and other parts of the Arab world – is to make it harder for repressive regimes to use technology to stifle dissent.

“The United States continues 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,” said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

While the new policy (which will require $25 million in funding ) championing freedom of expression seems like a noteworthy cause, it also raises questions about whether the Unites States is doing enough to protect its own Internet users. Some believe the U.S. government could do more in the area of data privacy, for instance, to protect consumers’ personal information online from misuse. Others feel that if America is going to talk about censorship abroad, it has to discuss changes that can be made at home as well, for instance, when it comes to federal wiretapping and government surveillance programs.

In her address this week, Clinton also defended the administration’s handling of the Wikileaks incident, calling the Wikileaks disclosures “an act of theft” of sensitive government documents whose publication made it far harder for the United States to protect its security or promote human rights and democracy around the world, cites The New York Times. “Wikileaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom,” Clinton said.

With the number of Internet users worldwide expected to grow by five billion in the next 20 years, it’s clear that the State Department has many questions to consider as it shapes its Internet policies and solidifies its definition of Internet freedom.