Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, North America, Press Freedom

U.S.: Clinton Criticises China over Internet Censorship

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Jan 22 2010 (IPS) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a speech Thursday laying out the Barack Obama administration’s position on internet freedom, and publicly called on Chinese authorities to investigate the security breaches which preceded last week’s decision by Google to end its cooperation with Chinese internet censorship.

“Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government and our civil society,” said Clinton in remarks delivered at the Newseum, here in Washington DC.

On Jan. 12, Google announced that it would cease to censor its search engine results in China and, if an agreement could not be reached with the Chinese government over this decision, would shut down its offices in China.

Google’s decision to end their cooperation with the Chinese government was announced along with accusations that Chinese hackers had breached Google’s security and gained access to the email accounts of several diplomats, journalists and Chinese human rights activists.

The decision by Google to go public with the security breaches and refuse to continue with censorship of Google search engine results has called attention to Beijing’s efforts at censorship, as well as the rampant corporate espionage and intellectual property theft reportedly conducted by, or on behalf of, Chinese companies.

While the Chinese government has denied any involvement in the hacking of Google email accounts and claims to be committed to protecting intellectual property rights, many here believe that the Chinese government hasn’t made a serious effort to stamp out these violations.

Recent reports suggest that the Chinese government may be directly involved in the hacking attempts and theft of intellectual property.

According to an FBI report leaked by the Daily Beast last week, the Chinese government has developed 180,000 cyberspies that “poses the largest single threat to the United States for cyberterrorism and has the potential to destroy vital infrastructure, interrupt banking and commerce, and compromise sensitive military and defence databases.”

The report, if true, makes the Google report of isolated attempts to hack into email accounts the tip of the iceberg, and would suggest that the Chinese capability to use cyber spies for both corporate espionage as well as cyber-terrorism represents a threat which cuts across human rights, banking and commerce, and national security issues.

“Secretary Clinton has elevated internet freedom to a key U.S. priority by confronting governments that censor online speech and supporting companies that stand up for human rights,” said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director for Human Rights Watch. “The challenge now will be to put these goals into practice by incorporating internet freedom into diplomacy, trade policy, and meaningful pressure on companies to act responsibly.”

Indeed, privacy advocates and human rights groups have spoken out in support of Google’s decision to stand up to Beijing’s censorship. Clinton’s speech touched on not only the pragmatic national security implications of Chinese cyber attacks but also the broader ideological struggle facing companies seeking to do business in China or other countries which practice censorship.

Clinton framed her remarks today in the context of the growing importance of the internet in connecting people in such diverse places as Iran after the tumultuous June elections and Haiti after last week’s earthquake. But her comments defined a clear doctrine of where the Obama administration stands on internet freedom and privacy.

“On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognise that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it,” said Clinton.

“Now, this challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic. The words of the First Amendment to our Constitution are carved in 50 tonnes of Tennessee marble on the front of this building. And every generation of Americans has worked to protect the values etched in that stone,” Clinton continued.

Clinton’s speech brought pushback from China Thursday, with several Chinese Communist Party-controlled newspapers running stories and editorials calling Google’s threat to pull out of the country a U.S. government conspiracy and said that Google was a tool of the U.S. government to impose its political will and values abroad.

Reports this week have suggested that Google may be more flexible in its stance than its statement a week ago, which read, “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”

The decision to no longer cooperate in censoring search results means it is unlikely that the company’s Chinese search engine will remain available to Chinese users, but room for compromise might be reached on Google retaining its offices in China, which include engineers, sale personnel, and a small involvement in the Chinese mobile phone industry.

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