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A look back at Hillary Clinton’s 2011 “Internet Freedom” speech

Still recall former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech on “Internet Freedom?” Our first reaction on this blog was that America wanted unfettered access to citizens around the world. From a propaganda perspective, that idea enables the U.S. State Department to bypass foreign governments in reaching their citizens directly. Clinton herself has said the Internet would be a more viable means to reach into certain countries than, say, Voice of America (VOA), which often gets its signals jammed. This is also good business for the likes of Google and other American Internet services companies. The more users on Google, the more advertising dollars. And, it was no surprise at the beginning of that speech, Clinton pointedly acknowledged contributions from Google’s Chairman, Eric Schmidt. She affectionately described Schmidt, “co-conspirator from time to time” for that policy formulation.

Now, fast forward to today, and think especially about what Edward Snowden has revealed about the U.S. and the U.K.’s extensive spying of everyone on the Internet. This is a big deal around the world. Those of us who are confined to U.S. and generally anglophone media, are likely not exposed to reactions from around the world. For example, did you know that at a recent U.N. meeting, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff called U.S. actions a “serious violation of human rights?”

The following TED talk in Brussels was recently given by Mikko Hypponen, a computer security expert from Finland which does an excellent job in tying together what the revelations mean. You may not follow the Snowden revelations closely, so I highly recommend watching this short video to bring yourself up to speed.

Now, coming back to the Clinton speech on “Internet Freedom.” She said:

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.

Well, actions speaks louder than words don’t they? As you just saw in Hypponen’s talk where he showed a timeline of NSA’s access to Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Facebook, and other Internet services, in fact, accessing these services is a guarantee that you loose your privacy.

If a country wants to protect its citizens, wouldn’t it make sense that country put up a firewall? Or as Hypponen proposes, everyone on the planet should opt out of American Internet services and build open-source equivalents. Or build their own.

In regards to China, Clinton said:

During his visit to China in November, for example, President Obama held a town hall meeting with an online component to highlight the importance of the internet. In response to a question that was sent in over the internet, he defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship. The United States belief in that ground truth is what brings me here today.

Think about what I highlighted above for a moment. Knowing what we know today, isn’t that “freely access information” actually meant to admonish China for kicking Google out?

As Ms. Dilma Rousseff said in her admonition of the U.S. at the U.N.,

if there is no right to privacy, there can be no true freedom of expression and opinion, and therefore no effective democracy

And this was a message for two countries who often invade other countries in the name of “democracy.”

  1. November 10th, 2013 at 02:52 | #1

    And there’s one aspect about this universal data theft that I have not seen mentioned anywhere: Control of politicians.

    Like Hypponnen suggested, everyone but total idiots or hypocritical naysayers have no need for privacy. It’s probably true that most ordinary folks’ embarrassing, even “illicit” or grayish footprints in cyberspace are of no consequence right now. But if they should become important or ambitious one day, especially politically, their files will be scrutinised. In populist democracies, especially ones with a moralistic facade, this can make or break candidates. An audit trail of scheming discussions with a political ally (what politician wouldn’t?), secretive ventures into xxx sites (Bill Clinton would have for sure, had it been available), private admission to having driven home a bit tipsy last night etc etc can ruin their political career if “leaked” to the “free press”. . . unless they cooperate, or are already one of them.

    Most politicians have a giant basket of dirty laundry. The effective control over them is therefore substantial, especially if Democracy has been successfully sold or imposed in their countries. The baffling impotence of the US Congress could be partly due to this simple mechanism?

  2. November 10th, 2013 at 09:33 | #2

    @Guo Du

    Like Hypponnen suggested, everyone but total idiots or hypocritical naysayers have no need for privacy.

    I disagree – or at least would push you to explain more.

    The problem you mentioned is not ground to say privacy must be protected. In general, we have an emotional pull for privacy only because an “expectation” was violated. But was the expectation justified to start with? Or was it just cultural … something that can be easily moved and redefined?

    The problem of political control – through blackmailing politicans – is not a problem of breaking of privacy per se, but the stupidity of the masses. If the masses should think more logically, such blackmails won’t work.

    Let say we have a Chinese system of meritocracy. I would assume (and hope) people vetting future leaders have all information – damned with privacy. I want to know that DUI, that traffic light citation, that mistress that he support with extravagant gifts…. I want the relevant people to know everything. I don’t necessarily want these info to be released to the public – for the paparazzi’s to pick choose and sansationalize …

    You see the jist of what I am saying? The issues you raise is not a problem with privacy – somehow it’s a human right for certain information to be cacooned. Yes – there may be an expectation that certain information – because of technolgoical, social, cultural circusmtances – are private, but that’s that. It’s an expectation. There is nothing absolute about privacy, in my view.

    We can argue that given today’s circumstances … we need this and this privacy… but that’s another matter.

    Also – I think it’s very important to separate privacy from other citizens and privacy from government/law/sovereign … but that’s also yet another matter.

  3. ersim
    November 10th, 2013 at 13:08 | #3

    When she made that “speech” in 2011, she did have the NSA in mind when she said, “On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does”. In her mind, as long as it is the U.S. who has control over “a single internet where all humanity has equal access”, of course she believes in “internet freedom”. American Exceptionalism at it’s worse.

  4. November 10th, 2013 at 17:51 | #4

    Allen / Guo Du – one of the points in Guo Du’s comment is this idea that if there is no privacy, it becomes impossible for any politician to alter the establishment’s views. The establishment would use whatever private information they can dig up for any politician and subvert him or her. Under such circumstances, this sort of democracy is basically fascist.

    Everything still goes by popularity, but the establishment has a perfect mechanism to shut down any opposition.

  5. November 10th, 2013 at 19:29 | #5


    Now I am even more confused. Is this about democracy, or privacy? I took Guo Du’s comment to be about privacy, not about democracy or fascism – whatever that may mean.

    But to your point about democracy, what do you mean by “establishment”? It seems too conspiratorial to think that all politicians are blackmailed because of a lack of privacy? So in order to stop this, we need to have privacy to protect all the dirty laundry of politicians???

  6. November 10th, 2013 at 19:42 | #6

    @YinYang and Allen,

    Yes I agree with Allen that privacy is not absolute, it’s indeed a culturally shaped expectation. Something generally regarded private to a European might not be a big deal to a typical Asian and vice versa. But EVERYONE, including those living in very “open” societies and extremely intrusive authoritarian states, EXPECTS a degree of privacy. I can’t think of any community which EXPECTS the government to have arbitrary access to all aspects of everyone’s life, including arguments and love chats between spouses (some of them “secret” for many cultural or biological reasons), parental laments about disappointing children, highly intimate photos, bank account balances, etc etc, not to say commercial secrets and strategic discussions.

    In short, privacy is a tacit social contract that varies from community to community. But expectation of some degree of privacy is universal. Its blatant violation is therefore all the more despicable when coming from someone who moralises and lectures about an inviolable, universal, and sacred right to nearly absolute privacy.

    On political blackmailing, I also agree that a sensible citizenry would be the best solution. BUT is that achievable in real life? The social hypocrisy in some Western democracies seems to me a hangover from the religious past. For centuries, people expected celibate oddballs supposedly detached from human weaknesses and deviousness to manage communities characterised by defects. This hypocritical expectation doesn’t appear to have evolved very much. People still expect their leaders to be armchair “saints” who have never engaged in any of the vices that everyone else secretly enjoys, thereby favouring liars and hypocrites in the selection process.

    Hopefully, a meritocracy such as China, with a relatively more pragmatic populace, would be more sensible and reasonable in this regard. However, expecting a FULLY open culture as you seem to have suggested would backfire similarly. Politicians would be forced to lie deliberately if the “expectation” of openness in personal details becomes unreasonable.

    Meanwhile, in many countries, the result, the REALITY, is what Yin Yang has helpfully clarified for me.

  7. November 10th, 2013 at 19:43 | #7

    In regards to China, Clinton said:

    During his visit to China in November, for example, President Obama held a town hall meeting with an online component to highlight the importance of the internet. In response to a question that was sent in over the internet, he defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens hold their own governments accountable, generates new ideas, encourages creativity and entrepreneurship. The United States belief in that ground truth is what brings me here today.

    Think about what I highlighted above for a moment. Knowing what we know today, isn’t that “freely access information” actually meant to admonish China for kicking Google out?

    I have a problem with this.

    Clinton’s point about the ability “to freely access information” is not tarnished in any sense by the revelations about widespread NSA snooping. The U.S. can still legitimately say we are the most free nation in the world, with the free-est internet in the world. Yes, we snoop, but we don’t censor. Information flows freely and for that we are stronger. If there is a leak of China’s version of NSA, China will just silence the revelations so that no one in China knows about it.

    Clinton can say all that … with a straight face.

    Some may argue that snooping chills free speech. The theory would go: the government snoops and is watching you. If you say anything it doesn’t like, it will come after you. So you better not say anything it doesn’t like. Lack of privacy leads to self censorship.

    NSA snooping as it is – widespread as it is – is still seen as targeted toward terrorists – the few who would carry out violent acts against the West. As such, the snooping, while it flies against everything the U.S. has been preaching, doesn’t decrease its standing of freedom.

    As for google leaving China, it was for two reasons.

    1. censorship (Chinese gov’t allegedly want google to remove certain links on its indexed pages)
    2. snooping (Chinese gov’t allegedly want google to hand over access to email accounts of “human rights activists” – and was engaged in cyberattacks against google when google didn’t comply)

    I don’t see how the recent NSA revelations would allegedly justify even Chinese gov’t kicking google out?

    When google said it was leaving China, it cited reason 2 but used the language of 1 – which sounded puzzling to me, but the ultimate irony is not that per se, it is trusing private companies to defend “freedom.”

    That irony still exists. It’s ok for Google to have access to all our private info, and have little regulation on what Google could or could not do with them. But once gov’t gets a hand on them, people start worrying – at least on the surface.

    Yet we depend on gov’t to regulate our food, medicine, to run the police and fire dept., to build our roads and bridges, to run/regulate our economy (just look at campaign speeches, all promising to run/regulate the economy better than the other guy)…

    Still scratching my head on that one.

  8. November 10th, 2013 at 20:04 | #8

    @Guo Du

    But expectation of some degree of privacy is universal.

    Maybe. But I don’t frame it that way. I don’t see why we start with “privacy” – what’s the big deal? I mean it.

    If someone wants to comb through all my tax filings, everything I said in class – in this blog – on the dinner table. It’s “wrong” only to the extent I did not expect it. But once it becomes clear that it’s possible for people to record all that – what’s the big deal?

    OK – what if people put a camera in my bathroom and bedroom … and want to release videos of me doing things that are usually considered private.

    Well – as long as social norm make those things private – then yes, they should be private. But it’s not a rights thing, I don’t think, it’s still a social expectation thing.

    A few years ago, there was this guy who released famous movie stars having sex …

    Surely there is a right to privacy for things like that.

    But imagine a society where people openly and freely have sex, releasing porn videos from my bedroom would be ok … because I have zero expectations of privacy of such acts.

    So it’s still a social contract thing. It’s not a basic right thing.

    A place that takes privacy very seriously in a political context is Germany – because today, the narrative goes that Hitler rose to power by forcing people to take commands of bad leaders, by using social norms to force people to conform. Hitler allegedly used covert and overt observation, interrogation, eavesdropping, neighbor watch data surveillance and other means of surveillance to force all but the most strident German citizens to conform to the Nazi program.

    Of course that’s too simple a story … but it does the trick to convince most Germans today that by respecting privacy and having democracy, they have exorcised their demons.

    But that’s their religion. It’s not human rights per se.

  9. November 10th, 2013 at 20:19 | #9

    While we’re on the topic of “free speech”, anyone who wants to find out just how “free” US propaganda outlets really are should watch the documentary “Mediastan”.

    My favorite part of this documentary was when a Radio Free Asia-sponsored Kazakh newspaper editor swore up & down how completely independent, free, and uncensored they are, and how they’re ardent supporters of the freedom of speech and an open media under any circumstance. When the Mediastan journalists proceeded to ask this Kazakh pawn to publish wikileaks related allegations, he immediately began to backtrack & hesitate; he ultimately refused to publish anything for fear of provoking his bosses in Washington (he admitted as much on camera).

    The scene was absolutely hilarious.


  10. November 10th, 2013 at 22:53 | #10

    Hi Allen,

    In my #4, I wasn’t trying to disagree with anything you’ve said.

    Of course, you are right – privacy is not a human right per se. But I have much less an issue when the Brazilian president uses it with the “human rights” context, because I don’t believe Brazil has the same missionary zeal as does the United States.

    Perhaps whenever we talk about these things, we need not take as strong or absolute a view towards their definition? Does that even make sense? Perhaps this is over my head?

    I do see corrupt U.S. government abusing privacy and using it to hamstrung anyone it does not like – hence marching towards a more fascist society.

    Think about how Martin Luther King was being blackmailed by the FBI and having his phones tapped.

    That’s not saying society wouldn’t want more transparency in their politicians. You also make the argument that transparency itself is not absolute either.

    Privacy and transparency are all ideas that come into play, and is not an either-or proposition.

    The NSA revelations are very much about how two-faced U.S. ideologies are. You say one thing and do the opposite.

    That’s the first order of business people should come to understand.

    Allen, I think it’s really hard for people to fully comprehend what you’ve been arguing: privacy, transparency, etc are not absolute nor are they rights. Give us time to slowly shed the layers of veil that’s been programmed into us.

    (Let me think about your #7. My initial reaction is I have been too sloppy in the OP. So thanks for your thoughts on those.)

  11. November 11th, 2013 at 00:06 | #11


    You’ve raised a very interesting issue actually. On one hand, at a personal level, I fully agree with your view on privacy, though I believe that makes us the odd ones out in the real world, which carries consequences. I keep very few secrets as a “stress mitigation” strategy. Most secrets are just neurosis. That said, even with this philosophical attitude, I’d still be uncomfortable if someone tap into my internet banking activities and obtain my password (assuring me that it won’t be misused).

    IF 99% of the people are like us, something which is impossible in my judgement, then the 1% who aren’t will benefit hugely from our open attitude. This abuse is especially guaranteed if that 1% keep persuading the rest to maintain openness while they snoop. It’s the classical social dynamics before an equilibrium is reached. The only crook in an honest community will be hugely “successful” whereas the only honest guy in a self-defeatingly wicked society may be treasured as the only possible arbiter.

    Meanwhile, my pragmatic side tells me to rely on common sense more than personal philosophy in judging the NSA data theft.

  12. ersim
    November 11th, 2013 at 07:47 | #12

    When it comes to the Western concept of “privacy”, it is as Orwellian as “1984”. Specially with the U.S. taking “sides in the struggle for freedom and progress” having easy access to the technology, which, according to Hillary Clinton, “doesn’t take sides”.

  13. Black Pheonix
    November 11th, 2013 at 08:03 | #13

    @Guo Du

    I’m with Allen on this one. What’s the “big deal” with “privacy” any ways?

    Philosophically, I think “privacy” is overly Westernized concept (another made up one).

    The Chinese equivalent would be more like “None of your business”, which is balanced by “Someone’s business”.

    In sum, in the Chinese concept, there is no “privacy” per se, it’s always someone’s “business” to know, it’s just whether it’s the appropriate someone and for what purpose.

    Thus, it’s not a balance of “how much” privacy vs. how much disclosure. Rather, it is a balance of Who knows and Why.

    The WHY justifies WHO should know WHAT.

    *In the US, it’s much more of EITHER “privacy” or no “privacy”. In that scope, when National Security is concerned, “privacy” becomes nothing more than an empty promise.

  14. November 11th, 2013 at 11:49 | #14

    @Black Pheonix

    In the US, it’s much more of EITHER “privacy” or no “privacy”. In that scope, when National Security is concerned, “privacy” becomes nothing more than an empty promise.

    On this issue … I think you may have stumbled into a key characteristic of liberalism.

    If we look through history of liberal traditions, you find yourself asking, how can such a tradition – with all the rhetoric of freedom going back hundreds of years – yet support slavery, opium war, lack of suffrage for most, imperialism?

    In slavery, you have people defining it away by focusing on “property” – or rather non-interference with personal property. On opium war, you can define away all the moral repugnicies of forcing drug on the masses of another society through a focus on “freedom of trade.” Lack of universal suffrage, you define universality out of existence through a focus on “personhood” defined by weird properties such as race, gender, and wealth. On imperialism, you also define away all the repugnance of it by a focus on freedom as a sort of natural survival of fittest of race, religion, culture, etc. (One can get more historical examples through the book Liberalism: A Counter-History Hardcover by Domenico Losurdo, for example)

    The thing is that you can mouth off whatever rights, and then rightfully take them away – correction, make it a non-issue, a non-relevancy – by defining that right away – based on your worldview.

    What makes it worse, the basic rights (and there must be sufficient many to legitimately cover all human circusmtances) must inherently oppose with each other under certain circumstances (otherwise, we can just have one universal right!), ensuring all liberals must inherently be allowed to choose how those conflicts ought to be resolved. But the way one frames, the way one chooses – must inherently be an extension of one’s world views.

    So liberalism at the end is just rhetoric for projecting one’s own preferences while sounding neutral and objective (i.e. pay lip service to a plethora of all just-sounding rights). Worse, it allows one to take away noble-sounding rights by substituting with other noble-sounding rights, while still paying mouth service to that original noble-sounding right – which makes it a most refined art of double speak.

    Someone needs to write a book on this. If successful, this person will be like Confucius …. speaking the truth in a troubled age, and coming up with something to allow people to see beyond, to move beyond the troubles of the times…

  15. November 11th, 2013 at 14:12 | #15

    A friend forwarded a quote recently I thought captures much of the essence of what we discuss:

    All religion has love, but love knows no religion.

    So, yeah, “democracy” or “privacy” religion, when zealously evangelized is often more about the zealots.

  16. ersim
    November 11th, 2013 at 15:41 | #16

    The Western concept of “freedom” is the biggest opiate liberalism is addicted to when it comes to “their rights”.

  17. Black Pheonix
    November 12th, 2013 at 09:47 | #17




    I think it’s more than just “liberalism”. It’s perhaps the fundamental way of Social Relationships in the West.

    In Asian societies particularly, social relationship is defined by shared commonalities. Identity of the individual is defined by what he/she shared/inherited from others. Honor, Shame, Profession, Possession, are generally considered shared and communal, rather than individualized. Limits are not clearly defined, because they are largely situational and based upon shared experiences. I.e. an honorable man is accorded more respect, and more influence (rights) in society, but such rights are not absolute.

    In such an arrangement, political “equality” is never possible, recognizing the reality of power disparity in society in the abstract.

    In the West, social relationships are defined by “boundaries”. What’s yours is not mine. Identity is defined by isolated individual “spheres” of possession (property) and influence (rights).

    In such a system, relationships are boiled down to rules, in attempt to maintain appearance of open fairness.

    However, this contradicts the fundamental reality of power disparity in every society, prompting ad hoc “exceptions” that attempts to deny the reality as the anomaly of the system.

    Thus, “rights” may be secretly taken away, leaving the baffling question recently from 1 US Congressman on NSA surveillance, “How can right to privacy be violated, if that person didn’t even know that he was being spied on??!”

    The answer, Congressman, is that your system is based upon semantics. The “rights”, like imaginary soap bubbles, are all theoretical. And thus by logic, one cannot pop someone else’s imaginary soap bubbles.

  18. November 12th, 2013 at 11:15 | #18

    @Black Pheonix
    I definitely see the key difference being the West thinks from the perspective of the individual while in China, society/collective carries more weight. It is the extremism that gets societies into trouble.

    lol, I feel my brain is numb each time we talk about “rights” and these sort of issues. Perhaps, simply, the West is much more experienced in saying, “we love you and we will invade you over it.” This sort of thinking is so prevalent, there’s only a minority in the masses who question it.

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