Internet Freedom Could Turn on 'Middle Countries'

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.

WASHINGTON -- 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.

"I think we have an erroneous tendency to project our own assumptions and our own familiarities in this debate on other capital cities. And we forget the fact that in most of these middle countries it's really only in the last two years -- thanks to the smartphone -- that significant percentages of their populations are online," Scott said. "These are new questions in a lot of these countries."

In India, for instance, the percentage of residents using the Internet still numbers in the single digits, according to Scott. Yet that country, with the world's second largest population and a thriving tech economy in cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore, represents a hive of opportunities for U.S. tech firms. At the same time, it has exhibited some worrisome signs of heavy-handed oversight that could mute the enthusiasm with which businesses eye the market.

Google and Facebook Comply

Just this week, word surfaced that Google and Facbeook had each taken down certain content on their domains in India to comply with a court ruling that upheld a lawsuit against a larger group of Internet companies seeking mechanisms to block sensitive religious material.

"That's the kind of thing that we're going to run up against all the time. The question is will they come out in the defense of an open Internet," Boorstin said of his company's situation in India.

He explained that he is hopeful that countries still developing the building blocks of their Internet policy will ultimately land on the side of openness. Even if they are not compelled by a philosophical allegiance to free expression, the pragmatic understanding that a cross-border flow of communication through social media and cloud computing technologies will be an essential piece of the 21st century economy should be motivation enough to loosen their Internet policies.

"They will recognize that without that free flow of information they're going to stifle if not strangle their growth," he said.

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.

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