US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton renewed a call for Internet freedom on Tuesday, saying nations that suppress online activity will pay an economic cost and risk unrest like in Egypt and Tunisia.
Clinton, in a speech at George Washington University, pointed to China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, Syria and Vietnam as countries that impose censorship, restrict Internet access or arrest bloggers who criticize the government.
She described the publication of secret US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks as the result of an "act of theft" and said US criticism of the website's actions did not clash with Washington's commitment to an open Internet.
Clinton also announced plans to launch Twitter feeds in Chinese, Russian and Hindi, just days after starting Twitter feeds in Arabic and Farsi.
She said the United States would continue to help people in "oppressive Internet environments" with censorship circumvention technology but "there is no silver bullet in the struggle against Internet repression."
"There's no 'app' for that," she quipped.
Making her second major speech on Internet freedom in the past year, Clinton said the United States supports the "freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online" and she urged other countries to do the same.
"This is a critical moment," she said. "The choices we make today will determine what the Internet looks like in the future."
Clinton described the Internet as "the public space of the 21st century -- the world's town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house, and nightclub."
She said protests in Egypt and Iran fueled by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube reflected "the power of connection technologies as an accelerant of political, social, and economic change."
"Consider what happened in Tunisia, where online economic activity was an important part of the country's ties with Europe, while online censorship was on par with China and Iran," she said.
"The effort to divide the economic Internet from the 'everything else' Internet in Tunisia could not be sustained. People, especially young people, found ways to use connection technologies to organize and share grievances.
"This helped fuel a movement that led to revolutionary change," she said.
"Those who clamp down on Internet freedom may be able to hold back the full expression of their people's yearnings for a while, but not forever," she said.
Clinton said efforts to clamp down on the Internet bring "a variety of costs -- moral, political, and economic."
"Countries may be able to absorb these costs for a time, but we believe they're unsustainable in the long run," she said. "When countries curtail Internet freedom, they place limits on their economic future."
She said China has been cited as a country "where Internet censorship is high and economic growth is strong" but restrictions "will have long-term costs that threaten one day to become a noose that restrains growth and development."
"We believe that governments who have erected barriers to Internet freedom... will eventually find themselves boxed in," she said. "They'll face a dictator's dilemma, and have to choose between letting the walls fall or paying the price to keep them standing."
On WikiLeaks, Clinton said the US government had no role in the decision by a number of US companies, including Amazon, MasterCard, PayPal and Visa, to cut off services to WikiLeaks.
"Any business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own policies regarding WikiLeaks was not at the direction or the suggestion of the Obama administration," she said.
"WikiLeaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom," she added.
Clinton's speech came on the same day as a US judge held a hearing in Virginia into a US government attempt to obtain information about the Twitter accounts of people connected with WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange described the US move on Monday as an "outrageous attack by the Obama administration on the privacy and free speech rights of Twitter's customers -- many of them American citizens."
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