As a political scientist working on IT and international relations, I was pleasantly surprised by Hillary Clinton’s speech today on the Internet and human freedom. US politicians have an unfortunate tendency to see the spread of the Internet and democracy as not only intertwined, but actually synonomous. While Clinton was clearly concerned with this relationship, she wasn’t just spewing the usual pabulum.
On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it.
This is not to say that the speech wasn’t overoptimistic about the possible consequences of an open Internet, highly dependent on uplifting anecdotes, and fuzzy around the edges. Nor that its normative claims (and some of the empirical ones) aren’t contestable. Still, as US politicians’ speeches about communication technologies go, this was one of the few that acknowledged (if not entirely consistently) that communication technologies, even ones invented in the US, are not synonomous with sliced freedom. That’s a real improvement.