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Fighting for Worldwide Internet Freedom

Ambassador David A. Gross, U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy
Op-Ed in Real Clear World
Washington, DC
August 14, 2008

With the Olympic Games now underway and the issue of "Internet freedom" in headlines and blogs worldwide, we should pause to recognize how far the world has come in regards to freedom of expression on the Internet and to renew our commitment to make the Internet available to everyone.

During the past decade, the United States government has focused, in a highly bipartisan manner, on three core elements to expand Internet freedom globally: first, by expanding access to the Internet; second, by monitoring restrictions some governments seek to impose on their citizens' use of the Internet; and third, by actively and forcefully opposing and responding to those restrictions.

A primary focus of this effort has been to help expand access to the Internet, especially in the developing world. The results have been spectacular. In 2000, there were about 360 million Internet users worldwide – an impressive number. Most of those users either lived in the developed world, especially the U.S., Europe, and Japan, or were otherwise wealthy. Today, because of private sector leadership, particularly through the innovation and creativity of companies to develop lower cost and higher quality equipment, and also the recent trend of governments to adopt progressive public policies that stimulate the building of network infrastructures, there are now nearly 1.5 billion Internet users worldwide – an increase of more than 300 percent in less than eight years.

Remarkably, much of this growth has been in the developing world. Since 2000, the two fastest growing regions (in percentage terms) for the Internet have been the Middle East and Africa. The greatest gross Internet growth has been in Asia, especially China with 253 million Internet users today. This means that dramatically more people – especially those in the developing world – can have access for the first time to the world's knowledge. A billion more people can now use the Internet to learn and speak more freely – if allowed by their governments.

Of course, simply having access to the Internet is not enough. There are countries, not only China but also others, especially in Asia and the Middle East, that seek to restrict by various means the types of information their people can access.

The U.S. government is working hard to address this important issue in many ways and in many places. The State Department, along with others, regularly raises these issues both publicly and privately with foreign governments. For years, President Bush has led the way by speaking out on this issue, not only during his recent trip to the Olympics, but also by making statements such as, "[Historians] will point to the role of technology in frustrating censorship and central control—and marvel at the power of instant communications to spread the truth, the news, and courage across borders."

Secretary Rice is also outspoken on this issue, having recently told a group at Google headquarters, “I believe very strongly that the Internet is possibly one of the greatest tools for democratization and individual freedom that we've ever seen.”

In fact, in early 2006, Secretary Rice created a State Department task force to address broadly the global challenges to Internet freedom. The Global Internet Freedom Taskforce (GIFT) addresses these challenges by actively working with NGOs, companies, and Congress to expand the monitoring of abuses and to report those problems in the Department's Annual Country Reports on Human Rights.

Importantly, we focus attention both on those countries that seek to repress Internet freedom, by actively intervening when specific issues arise, and on those many countries that have not yet established policies or practices on this issue, so that we can work with them to recognize that it is in their countries’ best long-term economic, social, and even political interests to give their people Internet freedom. Through public-private partnerships, we have held major capacity building conferences addressing these issues in virtually every region of the world, with particular emphasis on Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Finally, we have worked hard to foster international agreement about the importance of these issues. In 2005, the U.S. led the world’s leaders to unanimously agree at a United Nations heads-of-state Summit that it is “essential [that there be] freedom of expression and the free flow of information, ideas, and knowledge.”

But words are not enough. It will continue to be our task and the task of the next Administration to find new, effective, and innovative ways to help all the people of the world have access to the Internet and to the information and opportunities it provides.

Released on August 21, 2008

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