Clinton Condemns Her Own Government's Internet Policy


At a conference on Internet freedom in the Netherlands yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned government efforts to restrict content or block access to objectionable websites:

As people increasingly turn to the internet to conduct important aspects of their lives, we have to make sure that human rights are as respected online as offline….

This is an urgent task. It is most urgent, of course, for those around the world whose words are now censored, who are imprisoned because of what they or others have written online, who are blocked from accessing entire categories of internet content, or who are being tracked by governments seeking to keep them from connecting with one another….

When ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled, and people constrained in their choices, the internet is diminished for all of us. What we do today to preserve fundamental freedoms online will have a profound effect on the next generation of users….

There isn't an economic internet, a social internet, and a political internet. There is just the internet, and we're here to protect what makes it great….

Governments must resist the urge to clamp down…

The United States wants the internet to remain a space where economic, political, and social exchanges flourish. To do that, we need to protect people who exercise their rights online…

You'd never guess from these remarks that Clinton represents a government so intent on controlling what citizens do with their own computers in the privacy of their homes that it commandeers forbidden websites, arrests the people who run them (along with the people who assist the people who run them), and even threatens to prosecute anyone who helps promote those websites by carrying ads for them. The U.S. government's crusade against online gambling seeks to suppress an "an entire categor[y] of internet content," lest Americans use their networked computers to play poker or bet on sports, activities that are perfectly legal in many other countries (including the ones where gambling websites are based). If that is not an example of "people constrained in their choices" by arbitrary Internet edicts, what is? As I argued in Reason a few years ago, this moralistic crackdown blatantly violates the U.S. government's avowed commitment to free trade and an open Internet:

That policy, [New York University law professor Joseph] Weiler warned, "is detrimental to the reputation of the United States as a champion of the rule of law" and "is an invitation to other countries…to withdraw commitments rather than honor them." Should China one day decide it no longer wants to respect U.S. copyrights, or should the E.U. decide to exclude U.S. agricultural products, the United States could not reasonably object to such unilateral revision of trade agreements, given the precedent it is setting in the area of gambling.

The international implications of the online gambling crackdown extend beyond trade. According to the U.S. Justice Department, anyone who operates a gambling website that's accessible to Americans, even if it's based in a jurisdiction where the business is legal and licensed, is criminally liable in the United States. If he should happen to visit or pass through the U.S., he is subject to arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment.

How would Washington react if an American visiting Tehran or Beijing received similar treatment because he had posted material on a U.S.-based website that authorities in Iran or China deemed indecent or subversive? How would it view a request for the extradition of such a "criminal"? "This is a very dangerous precedent," says [gambling law specialist] Behnam Dayanim, "because it sets the stage for that kind of activity, and to the extent we object we would be subject to charges of hypocrisy."

Opponents of online gambling, of course, think they have good reasons for restricting this particular category of Internet content. But so does every censor. "While efforts by countries like China to curb the Internet have been well documented," The New York Times reports, "such steps by democratic countries have deepened alarm among free-speech advocates, even if the intent is to regulate harmful or illegal content." Whether the government is democratically elected or not, the intent is always to "regulate harmful or illegal content." The legal status of speech is whatever the government makes it, and if censors did not think the speech was harmful, why would they be trying to suppress it? The issue is not whether the content is illegal but whether it should be—or, to put it another way, which harms are legitimate grounds for government action. Before Clinton lectures the world about Internet freedom, she should have a coherent answer to that question.