Hillary Clinton, Internet Freedom and Values

by JenniferCobb on 02/16/2011

Hillary Clinton’s speech on Internet Freedom yesterday went a good distance toward addressing some of the most naive responses to the Internet’s role in the unfolding events in the Middle East.  Early sound bites labeling the uprising in Tunisia the “Wikileaks Revolution” or calling Mark Zuckerberg a modern-day “Moses” because of Facebook’s role in Egypt were simplistic at best.  Clinton said, “Egypt isn’t inspiring because people communicated using Twitter; it is inspiring because people came together and persisted in demanding a better future. Iran isn’t awful because the authorities used Facebook to shadow and capture members of the opposition; it is awful because it is a government that routinely violates the rights of its people.  It is our values that cause these stories to inspire or outrage us—our sense of human dignity, the rights that flow from it, and the principles grounded in it. And it is these values that ought to drive us to think about the road ahead.”

Values.  At the policy level, the values that Clinton singles out are “liberty and security,”  “transparency and confidentiality,”  and “protecting free expression while fostering tolerance and civility.”   While promoting these values is the perennial challenge of policy makers in democratic societies, according to Clinton the Internet just transfers the conversation to a new context.  She asserts, rightly, that technology is not causing social uprisings.  People are rising up and technology is the great enabler.  Technology is just a faster, better communications pipe.  And that’s where I think she gets it just a little bit wrong.

The Internet is not just an open platform for communication composed of value-neutral tools.  The tools we build are deeply imbued with values and every decision carries a bias, from how the tools are designed and built to how they are marketed and maintained.  An obvious example is Google’s organic search and the company’s long-standing policy of favoring content with the most links.  Google, on its “Our Philosophy” page, states, “Google search works because it relies on the millions of individuals posting links on websites to help determine which other sites offer content of value. We assess the importance of every web page using more than 200 signals and a variety of techniques, including our patented PageRank™ algorithm, which analyzes which sites have been ‘voted’ to be the best sources of information by other pages across the web.”  Value for Google equates with popularity.   It is a social concept.  And, though Google operates in “150 internet domains” and “110 languages,” it uses the same basic formula in all these contexts.  Does this make sense?  Since Google established PageRank™, content has exploded.  We now live in a world of 255 million websites and we are adding 21 million more every year.  There are 152 million blogs worldwide with 50,000 more created every day – the majority of them in China and Japan.  In this vast ocean of content, the values that inform search technology have a huge impact on what we know and, subsequently, how we think.

Another pointed example of the values embedded in technology is Facebook’s policy of enforcing the use of real names.  Facebook clearly falls on the “transparency” side of the “transparency and confidentiality” spectrum outlined by Clinton.  As she referenced in her speech, after the Iran uprising, the government used Facebook (and Twitter and Flikr) to identify and incarcerate activists.  This is pretty scary, particularly when one has been involved on the wrong side of a failed revolution

The value of transparency that drives Facebook is deeply baked into every aspect of the application, from what you see when you log on, to how easy it is to “post” or “like” or “friend” to how hard it is to change your privacy settings.  The company’s complex and fast-moving privacy policies seem to be designed to obscure exactly how much each of us is “sharing” with the larger world, particularly from companies that could benefit from using our information.  For example, the “log in with Facebook” feature now popping up everywhere grants applications access to much of your personal information.   Even though a box pops us asking me to “allow” or “not allow” I am never sure exactly what I am allowing.

The story gets more complex when one acknowledges that the vast majority of the Internet tools used worldwide are built and managed by US corporations that make decisions guided by a complex and often murky mix of democratic values and profit motives.  (Fun fact – the combined market cap of the top five US technology companies – HP, Google, Microsoft, IBM and Apple – is $1 trillion.)  As Ethan Zuckerman wrote in response to Clinton’s speech, “Any attempt to use the internet as a digital public sphere needs to consider the role of US corporations.”  Many observers note that foreign governments believe that the US favors its own companies unfairly in its Internet policy agenda.  This perception of bias is hurting the agenda of Internet Freedom on the global stage. Clinton remains fairly silent on this important point.  Evgeny Morzov, Contributing Editor at Foreign Policy, said in a recent talk, “These companies are not angels and it is up to civil society to pressure them to behave in more responsible ways.”

Facebook is, in many ways, a deeply American application.  It is social and communal and extroverted.  It favors joiners and sharers.   Google too operates on similar notions of “social” and “popular” in its search algorithms.  These are simple, but powerful examples.  There are many more tools that exhibit similar biases that we choose to ignore.  Most likely, we ignore them because they feel natural and good to us.  Social is good.  Ways to join are good.  These are the values that support democratic society.  And yet, we have to be careful to understand that Internet tools and platforms, developed by American companies, can be threatening to people and governments embedded in very different cultures and with very different historical trajectories.  The tools are not neutral.  Understanding the values embedded in them will go a long way toward building a world based on mutual understanding that celebrates and embraces our diversity while we build common platforms for communication.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Andrew Rader February 17, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Clinton’s speech extolling the values that inspired us was a bit disingenuous. Clinton, Biden and Obama were hedging their bets until it became undeniable that the Egyptian protests were a juggernaut not to be denied. THe US supported Mubarak and ignored our “values” because Mubarak served our military and economic interests in the region. Corporate interests are what US policy values.
My apologies for ranting.
I applaud your pointing out the US corporate interests in the internet and the funneling of information into their collective hands. Having said that, I will share your post.

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