U.S., World Community Focus on Strengthening Internet Freedom

By Eric Green
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - The United States and the world community increasingly are addressing the complex issue of free access to the Internet and governments that seek to restrict its use in spreading human rights and democracy.

To heighten attention to the issue, the U.S. State Department held a January 30 conference on Internet freedom held under the auspices of the department’s Global Internet Freedom Task Force. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice established the task force in February 2006, with one of its goals addressing the practice by repressive regimes of restricting the flow of information on the Internet. (See related article.)

The conference brought together State Department officials, representatives from the corporate world and human rights organizations, leaders from the high-profile Yahoo and Google Internet-based services companies, and the Microsoft software corporation.

State Department official Jeffrey Krilla, a participant in the conference, told USINFO February 8 that the eclectic group of participants meant the airing of a wide variety of views on how to combat Internet censorship.

Krilla, deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, said his bureau recently set aside $500,000 from its “Human Rights and Democracy Fund” to support global Internet freedom projects.  In addition, the Department’s next edition of its annual country reports on human rights practices will have an expanded section about freedom of speech on the Internet.  That report will be released “in the next month or so,” Krilla indicated.

That expanded section about the Internet, said Krilla, stems from the fact that U.S. officials are increasingly focused on repressive regimes around the world that violate international standards on freedom of expression by punishing individuals or groups who use cybertechnology to dissent peacefully from official policy.

Paula Dobriansky, the State Department’s under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs, released a statement at the conference saying the Department is increasing its monitoring of challenges to Internet freedom by countries around the world.

The State Department says expanding access to the Internet is a key part of the overall U.S. government strategy to increase Internet freedom.  This is accomplished through programs such as the public-private Digital Freedom Initiative.  That initiative has worked with such companies as Intel, Cisco, Motorola, Voxiva and Hewlett-Packard to support the government of Peru's efforts to spread Internet use to more than 1,000 rural locations in the South American nation.

The department’s January 30 conference was divided into two panel discussions - one on the effect of Internet censorship, and another on “Internet freedom” - shorthand for what the Department defines as “freedom of expression and the free flow of information” online.


One conference participant, Alexis Krajeski, an analyst for governance and sustainable development at the London-based F&C asset management company, told USINFO February 14 that “it’s a mad, mad world” regarding the Internet because of its current “highly unregulated” situation.

Such lack of regulation, she said, inspires questions as to what is considered appropriate free speech online, and how to protect customer privacy from “identity thieves” and “underground agents” who try to steal social security and credit card numbers for illicit and harmful purposes.

Krajeski, who works in her firm’s Boston office, said she found the State Department conference useful because it raised a key question on what should be the “appropriate role” for the U.S. government to play regarding online access and Internet free speech.  The issue, she added, intertwines ensuring national security and protecting personal privacy.

Krajeski is co-author of her company’s new report on how technology, media and telecommunications companies can best meet the challenges of allowing users in the new digital age access to information while safeguarding their security and privacy.  The report, entitled Managing Access, Security & Privacy in the Global Digital Economy, also recommends “principles of good practice” for dealing with access, security and privacy concerns, warning that new technology is being used to track political dissidents and to silence free speech.


The Paris-based press freedom advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, released a report February 1 that said 60 people around the world currently are imprisoned for posting criticism of governments online.

The report said China, with 50 people in jail, is by far the world’s “worst prison” for cyberdissidents.  Four other such dissidents are in jail in Vietnam, three in Syria and one each in Tunisia, Libya and Iran.

Internet users are developing new solutions to fight back against dictatorial regimes by creating new technology, encrypting their e-mail, and through other tools that are still not detected by law enforcement entities monitoring the Internet, said Reporters Without Borders.  However, China and other repressive regimes are said to “filter” out Web sites that they consider overcritical and threatening to their policies.

The full text of the Reporters Without Borders report is available on the group’s Web site. The full text (PDF, 281KB) of the F&C report is available on the firm’s Web site.

The 2005 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and information on the Digital Freedom Initiative are available on the State Department Web site.

For more information on U.S. policies, see Internet Freedom.