“In one direction we can reach out and touch the time when the leaders of the Soviet Union thought that the explosion at the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl could be kept secret from the rest of the world. In the other direction we can see a time—already upon us—when fourteen-year-old hackers in Australia or Newfoundland can make their way into the most sensitive areas of national security or international finance. The central concern of government in the future will not be information, but analysis. We need government agencies staffed with argumentative people who can live with ambiguity and look upon secrecy as a sign of insecurity.”
——Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan,
Report of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, 1997
“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
For some time now, our leaders have been saying that they understand—nay, that they embrace—the disruptive potential of the Internet. Take President Obama, who used networked technology so adroitly in his 2008 election campaign. Here he is talking about the power of the Internet at a town hall meeting with students in Shanghai in 2009, where he memorably declared:
I am a big believer in technology, and I’m a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information. I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable. They can begin to think for themselves. That generates new ideas. It encourages creativity.
Obama added, “The truth is that because in the United States information is free…I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me. I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger, and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don’t want to hear.”
Or take Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. No American official has been more eloquent in expressing support for the power of the Internet than Clinton, who gave a highly visible speech on “Internet freedom” on January 21, 2010, in Washington, where she waxed poetic about how “the spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet,” adding:
The Internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, e-mails, social networks and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship….
Now, ultimately, this issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one Internet, one global community and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors.
The words are nice, but unfortunately theirs has been a kind of bloodless embrace, a rhetorical gesture to a changing culture without any real content and certainly no loss of control. Yes, as a candidate Obama allowed his supporters to use his online social network, my.BarackObama.com, to organize a 20,000-strong petition objecting to his flip-flopping on the issue of warrantless wiretapping. But after an e-mail response and a few hours of question-deflecting by his advisers on his blog, the issue was dropped. Most politicians, including Obama, have used the Internet to consolidate their power, not to empower others for any other purpose.
To be sure, they’ve been fascinated by the Internet’s potential to challenge the status quo elsewhere. President Obama deftly used YouTube to address the Iranian people directly at the beginning of his administration, posting a message of friendship at the time of the Nowruz (springtime) celebrations that, according to YouTube’s open tracking analytics, was indeed widely watched inside Iran. And administration officials like Clinton have spoken out often in defense of bloggers’ free speech rights, and condemned countries like China, Egypt, Iran, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Vietnam for clamping down on the Internet and cracking down on human rights activists using online social network platforms.