Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is preparing to deliver a major speech on Thursday elevating the importance of Internet freedom and placing the influence of the United States' diplomacy behind efforts to protect it, according to multiple people who have been briefed on the speech's contents.
Clinton's speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., is intended to announce that support for online liberty and press freedom will become a State Department priority and will address the importance of cybersecurity, people who have been briefed said. For example, the U.S. could be prepared to require countries to declare support for basic principles around Internet freedom as part of the conditions for receiving foreign aid, sources told CNET News.
The speech will come just nine days after Google's blunt declaration about Chinese censorship and illegal electronic intrusions, including allegations of theft of intellectual property. As many as 30 other companies may have been targeted, including Yahoo, Symantec, Juniper Networks, Dow Chemical, and Northrop Grumman.
One question left unanswered during the briefing by Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, which took place Wednesday morning, is whether the State Department would risk offending the Chinese government by addressing last week's charges lodged by Google. "We did not get the impression that there would be any particular reference to the Google China incident," said Robert Mahoney, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, one of the people briefed.
But a State Department official, speaking on background, told CNET later in the day that the Google-China incident will be included in the speech.
The speech comes at a precarious time in Washington-Beijing relations, which have been stressed by a dispute over carbon emissions at the Copenhagen summit and controversy over the valuation of China's currency, the yuan.
"If people are looking for a laying out of a 1-through-10 Internet agenda, they're going to be disappointed," said Leslie Harris, the president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, who was also briefed. "But if they're looking for the United States to put the power of its diplomacy on the line for Internet freedom, it's going to be a very important speech."
Google's blunt admission that it believes the Chinese government is behind intrusions into its internal network, and perhaps theft of source code, has roiled political and technological circles since last week. It has led the State Department to indicate that it would lodge a protest in a formal letter--called a demarche--with Beijing.
In the last few days, State Department officials have had multiple meetings with their Chinese counterparts and say they plan to continue the discussions.
During a press briefing on Wednesday, however, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell declined to say whether the demarche has been sent.
"We take this matter very seriously and, as Secretary Clinton said last week, that the whole issue does raise serious concerns," Campbell told reporters. "Now, it is also clear that China has denied the allegations made by Google. But we also think that the Chinese are in the best position to explain this, and we are asking them for an explanation."
Expect to hear about more than China, however. Sources familiar with the development of the policy said it dates back to last summer, when violent protests in Iran were all over Twitter and YouTube despite attempts by the Iranian government to censor the communications. Even some countries like South Korea, home to widespread Internet usage, have enacted laws such as requiring those uploading videos to YouTube to use their real names instead of pseudonyms.
And there are dozens of countries in which citizens are just starting to access and appreciate the global Internet. Some of the governments in those countries are attempting to figure out how they will respond to these new freedoms, and could potentially be swayed one way or another by a carrot-and-stick approach from the U.S. government tied to foreign aid.
Human rights groups cautioned on Wednesday that a high-profile address by an administration official may be forgotten within a year or so. They said that happened in February 2006 when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice created the Global Internet Freedom Task Force (GIFTF), convened a few meetings, and then let the effort languish.
"I would hope that it's not GIFTF 2, but a decided evolution from that," said Arvind Ganesan, director of Human Rights Watch's business and human rights program. "It'll be interesting to see if they're not only supporting openness online, but supporting it to a particular end."
Sharon Hom, executive director of the Human Rights in China advocacy group, also stressed a wait-and-see approach. "It's important to make a strong policy statement," Hom said. "More important is how it will become implemented."