In the wake of Google's threat to pull out of China over allegations that Chinese hackers penetrated the company's computer systems and stole intellectual property, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's speech last week extolling the five freedoms of the Internet age, what should U.S. government policy be on Internet freedom abroad?
Some senators, Sam Brownback and Arlen Specter for example, say the U.S. government should directly back censorship-busting technologies and policies. Critics say this will backfire by allowing regimes such as China and particularly Iran to say, "Look how Washington is trying to interfere in our countries again." How hard should the U.S. government push for unfettered access to the Internet in foreign countries, particularly the closed ones? And what should the Obama administration's role be in this dispute between China and Google? What other tools can the U.S. use to push worldwide Internet freedom?
To inform the discussion, here's a little background on the Google China dispute:
• Reports indicate that the Chinese hackers might have penetrated a system that Google uses to conduct lawful e-mail surveillance of foreign spies and terrorists on behalf of the U.S. government. If true, the Chinese hackers could know whom the U.S. government is ordering Google to monitor, and how the company goes about filtering those communications.
• Google has protested the Chinese government's censorship of Web searches and has threatened to stop censoring them within China. The State Department has used Google's public threats of a pull out to urge all technology companies to stand up to China. Last week, Secretary of State Clinton urged U.S. companies "to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments' demands for censorship and surveillance.... They need to consider what's right, not simply what's a quick profit."
• The dispute has Chinese senior officials doing damage control. Hoping to keep the row with Google from harming bilateral agreements with the United States, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei cautioned last week, "The Google case should not be linked with relations between the two governments and countries; otherwise, it's an over-interpretation."
• Google's announcement that it had been hacked amounts to an unprecedented admission for a major U.S. company. Clearly, the Obama administration was aware of Google's decision before it was announced, and the State Department has used it to tweak China and other oppressive regimes. Secretary Clinton seemed to be calling upon U.S. corporations to play a role traditionally reserved for governments -- confronting restrictive regimes over how they police their own societies and how they steal secrets from other governments.