Open letter to Hillary Clinton on Internet Freedom

Last month I wrote an open letter to Hillary Clinton. It was based on a presentation I that I made during a panel discussion at a Google sponsored conference titled Internet at Liberty 2012 in Washington DC on May 24, 2012.

Sunil Abraham's article was published in Thinking Aloud on July 17, 2012

The question that my panel tried to grapple with was "In a world where nearly nine out of ten Internet users are not American, what is the responsibility of United States institutions in promoting internet freedom?" My co-panelists were Cynthia Wong who is with the Centre for Democracy and Technology, Mohamed El Dahshan a writer and journalist, Dunja Mijatovic the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

Internet freedom is a curious subject. It is a technology specific liberty - for a moment consider television freedom. The US has more Muslims than India has Christians. But Indian television in the average hotel comes in hundreds and there are at least 3 channels of Christian preaching. But US television in hotels is usually less than 50 channels with no channels of Islamic preaching. In fact even the reception of secular channels from the Islamic World like Al Jazeera is still difficult in America. Can we accuse the US of not having television freedom since their television features Christian evangelists but not Muslim evangelists? Should it be part of India's foreign policy to evangelize television freedom given that there is a large domestic industry with clear international potential?

In an ideal world - citizens will possess technology-neutral freedom to communication and expression. But nothing can be farther from the truth. Communication technologies are regulated using a plethora of policies and practices and very often these have a chilling effect on freedoms.

The following is my response to the technology-specific demands for deregulation from the US Government.

Text of the Open Letter[2]

Recognise Access to Knowledge (A2K) as pre-condition for freedom of expression: There is no difference between aggressive enforcement of imbalanced and obsolete intellectual property laws and censorship. The need of the moment is not more enforcement to protect obsolete business models against the everyday practices of ordinary netizens but rather the reform of intellectual property law (levies, broader exceptions and limitations, pools, statutory and compulsory licenses, prizes etc.) to keep pace with innovations in technology and the production of knowledge and culture.

Recognise privacy as pre-condition for security: The alleged tension between privacy and security is a false dichotomy. Blanket surveillance by design compromises security. Surveillance is like salt in cooking — essential in very small quantities but dangerous even if slightly in excess. Blanket surveillance technologies are only going make things easier for — and will only serve as targets for — current and future online villains.

Don't lose the moral high-ground: Remember, with great power comes great responsibility. Other countries are waiting to cherry pick from your worst practices. Also don't use trade agreements to selectively export components of US policy without the accompanying safeguards for civil liberties and rights. Citizens in oppressive and authoritarian states are depending on the US government, courts and civil society to protect their rights online. Don't undermine their capacity to shame their governments by holding up the US as the example of 'how to get things right'. They urgently need the US government to lead by example.

Recognise that freedom of expression has become a trade issue: This is unfortunate but this is true — thanks to the precedent set by the developed world when it came to asymmetric trade negotiations. Just as the US is interested in protecting the interests of its corporations in global markets — other governments are keen protect the interests of their own corporations. The optimal solution in this case is where all countries and corporations are equally unsatisfied. This will remain a continuing discussion.

Address developing country anxieties around critical internet infrastructure: Security by obscurity will no longer do — security by transparency through open standards, technologies and governance is the only way to fears and build a trust-worthy and secure Internet for all of us. For example, there is urgent need to develop standards for supply chain audits of information infrastructure. The US has dealt with the fear of back doors by banning the use of hardware and software from countries it does not trust. The developing world is not sure if there are back-doors in hardware and software manufactured by US corporations.

Time has comes to address this and other related anxieties.

Appreciate diversity in nomenclature: 'Freedom' and 'liberty' may be appropriate terms to use in the United States of America. But openness may be more in countries that are not yet full and robust liberal democracies. The Internet Governance Forum for example uses 'openness' instead of 'freedom'. Openness is also preferred because it includes 'freedom of expression', 'freedom of information' (also known as right to information, access to information or public and 'free knowledge' (free software, open standards, open content, open access, open data, open educational resources, etc.)

Don't be too instrumental in your interventions: Don't undermine the local credibility of like-minded civil society, think-tanks and research organisations by being too directive in your support. Managerialism will undermine reform of policies and practices in information societies and so does inappropriate/premature monitoring and evaluation (for example, looking for explicit attribution in terms of casual connections between your actions and outcomes). There is a need to support greater reflexivity in the global information society by developing institutional capacity in developing countries through unrestricted funding. True critical thinking is the foundation of both scientific progress and open societies. Go out of your way to find and support those who disagree with you. Protect the plural foundation of our networked society!


Sunil Abraham was a speaker along with Cynthia Wong, Mohamed El Dahshan and Dunja Mijatovic in Plenary IV Debate 3 at the Internet at Liberty 2012 event organised by Google on May 24, 2012.

View the video on YouTube