Dilemma For U.S.: Does Net Freedom Trump Security?
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President Obama's administration objected when Egypt shut down the Internet for several days. It was part of the government's effort to slow down protests. And in this case, the U.S. supported Internet freedom. The United States does not support that freedom in every case, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN: When President Obama on Tuesday night gave his view of what should happen in Egypt, he reminded authorities there that the United States stands for universal values.
President BARACK OBAMA: Including the rights of the Egyptian people to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and the freedom to access information.
GJELTEN: That last one - the freedom to access information - was a clear rebuke to the authorities in Egypt for shutting down the Internet. Within 12 hours it was up and running again.
Egyptian democracy activists, nevertheless, complained the Obama Administration moved too slowly. If so, that could be because pushing too hard in Egypt on one goal could set back progress somewhere else. Promoting Internet freedom, for example, might have been seen as competing with the goal of fighting terrorism. And that's an area where the U.S. relies on Egypt, according to Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism adviser to Presidents Clinton and Bush.
Mr. RICHARD CLARKE (Counterterrorism adviser): The Egyptian role in counterterrorism has been essential to us for the last 15 to 20 years. They've been one of the best allies we've had in the fight against al-Qaida and other radical groups.
GJELTEN: Here's another example where the U.S. didn't exactly embrace Internet freedom - WikiLeaks. The State Department forbid employees from looking at websites that linked to secret WikiLeaks files. Clay Shirky, a new media expert at New York University, sees some possible U.S. hypocrisy here on the Internet freedom issue.
Professor CLAY SHIRKY (New York University): The government has held itself up for criticism around things like attempts to remove WikiLeaks from its servers or variable support for the uprisings between Tunisia and Egypt.
GJELTEN: Bottom line: Internet activism is great in Tunisia, maybe less convenient where WikiLeaks is concerned - or where counterterrorism is a higher priority.
Here's another goal that may conflict with the promotion of Internet freedom -cyber security. Imagine some country attacking the United States via the Internet. Should the U.S. government then be able to defend itself by putting some limits on the Internet? That's under debate right now in the U.S. Congress.
Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): Computer systems of Congress and the executive branch agencies are under cyber attack an average of 1.8 billion times per month.
GJELTEN: Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine is a co-sponsor of legislation that would authorize the president to declare a cyber emergency if another country wages cyber war against the U.S. It would not allow him to shut down the Internet like the Mubarak government did, but in exceptional circumstances it could permit some limits on Internet traffic.
Senator COLLINS: The president could only restrict a particular part of a critical infrastructure if no other action could protect that system or asset.
GJELTEN: The power grid, for example. Now that's an understandable argument for some Internet limitations. But Clay Shirky poses this question: Might not Hosni Mubarak have argued that his government was facing a cyber emergency of sorts -a political one maybe, but still a cyber emergency?
Prof. SHIRKY: If the judgment is, We need to protect the state against things that are happening using the Internet, then Mubarak's government was precisely correct in saying this is a cyber emergency. Because if people are using these tools to do anything from resyndicating Al Jazeera videos to coordinating when to turn out in Tahrir Square, that is, from the point of view of the Mubarak government, exactly an emergency.
GJELTEN: The world is a complex place. U.S. policy goals have to address many concerns. Difficult choices may need to be made. Like in Egypt. The Obama administration may learn whether a new government there, one that more vigorously supports Internet freedom and other democratic values, could be as strong a counterterrorism ally as the Mubarak regime has been.�
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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