Support dissidents, but only over there

Yesterday, I came across two fairly interesting stories in the news. However, the combinaiton of the two made me do a double take.

The first story was that the “U.S. Department of State will launch several new initiatives focused on fighting Internet censorship”. In a speech US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “Both the American people and nations that censor the Internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote Internet freedom,” and “countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century.” Clinton also said that the US Department of State will support circumvention technologies for dissidents whose connections to the open Internet are blocked, and she urged Google and other companies to not accept censorship, anywhere.

The second story was that an official of the U.S. Department of State warned students at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs that talking about WikiLeaks on Facebook or Twitter could endanger your job prospects. A letter sent by the schools Office of Career Services cautioned students that they could jeopardize their prospects (of getting jobs in the federal government) by posting links to WikiLeaks online, or even by discussing the leaked documents on social networking sites, quoting an official of the Department of State.

The irony, it’s killing me.

It’s no secret that I’m perfectly in line with the first statement. We need governments to support open access, free internet (and net neutrality). However, when you at the same time support dissidents abroad and warn students in your own country to keep their mouth shut, it’s no help to anybody. Suddenly “internet freedom” is not a value – it’s a blunt instrument used to bang foreign governments over the head.  With the backdrop of all the maneuverings following the latest round of WikiLaks releases, a US-led campaign for Internet Freedom is not going to convince anyone, and could end up doing more harm than good.

For the west to claim leadership, we must have integrity. In this case, we must recognize that dissidents are not just in China or the USSR – they are right here in the west, and we must make sure that they are protected, their freedom ensured, and their role in a free society cherished.