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Internet freedom could turn on 'Middle Countries'

Kenneth Corbin | Feb. 8, 2012
Between the free-expression camp and the hard-line regimes with strict censorship policies are a host of important, growing nations that are just beginning to delve into the work of crafting Internet policy. And those countries could hold the key.

With so much attention focused on online censorship in highly restrictive countries such as China, Iran and Syria, the discussion of global Internet freedom often has tended to exclude the large class of more moderate nations with rapidly growing online populations with only a rudimentary set of laws and policies for the Web.

To the extent that the issue has received coverage in the mainstream press, the banner headlines have generally been reserved for the higher-profile flare-ups, recently seen in various Internet crackdowns amid the Arab spring uprisings or Google's 2010 standoff with China over online censorship.

But for Bob Boorstin, Google's director of corporate and policy communications, the greater uncertainty, both for U.S. businesses looking to new markets overseas and global Internet users, is found in the countries that have neither made forceful affirmations of online freedom nor implemented rigid, state-sanctioned censorship frameworks.

"The countries that I'm most concerned with in the next couple of years and that I think are most worth looking at are those in the middle -- the Brazils and the Indias and Argentinas and the Chiles and the North African countries and Southeast Asian [countries], like Indonesia, the Philippines. And the question I want to put on the table is which way are they going to go?" Boorstin said here at an event hosted by the Media Access Project, a nonprofit public-interest law firm and advocacy group. "That's the question that I'm focused on at the moment."

Clinton Shines Light on Internet Freedom

Shortly after Google went public with the revelations that it had been targeted by a series of cyber attacks emanating from China and announced that it would no longer comply with that country's Internet censorship rules, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made Internet freedom the subject of a major policy speech in January 2010, an issue she has revisited in subsequent remarks.

Clinton cast the issue in terms of human rights and freedom of expression, and signaled that Internet freedom would become an integral part of U.S. foreign policy and diplomatic strategy.

Ben Scott, policy advisor for innovation at Clinton's office, called that speech a "sea change" that served to elevate Internet issues to a first-tier item on the global policy agenda.

"Virtually everyone has woken up to the fact that the Internet matters to foreign policy," Scott said on Tuesday. "This is an issue that no one can ignore anymore."

But that broad acceptance that the Internet matters is not to be mistaken for anything close to consensus on the subject, Scott said.

He acknowledged that there is a rudimentary understanding that "technology is a catalyst for economic growth" throughout the international community, but added that he regularly meets with senior government, academic and business leaders around the world who do not believe that the Internet represents a net good, a starting point that is bound to prescribe a policy framework very different from that found in the United States and other countries where the Web is a generally open platform for expression.


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