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Social Media – The U.S. Government’s Conflicted Response

• February 17, 2011 • 12:30 PM

The U.S. government has an awkward relationship with social media, praising its use in Egypt and suing in its use for WikiLeaks.

Hillary Clinton gave the second major speech of her State Department tenure this week on the importance of Internet freedom throughout the world, a popular theme in the wake of uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East that now seem impossible to imagine pre-Twitter.

“Together, the freedoms of expression, assembly and association online comprise what I have called the freedom to connect,” Clinton said in comments at George Washington University. “The United States supports this freedom for people everywhere, and we have called on other nations to do the same.”

Her remarks celebrated Egyptian activists while wagging a finger at China, Myanmar and Iran. But for all the attention paid to foreign autocrats who censor Web searches, block social media sites and monitor activists online, one note in Clinton’s comments felt a bit off-key. The U.S. government has an awkward relationship itself to the Internet these days — not the least of which with Twitter — and that reality could blunt some of Clinton’s message at home and abroad.

In an irony not lost on many tweeting commentators, Clinton began her speech Tuesday barely an hour after lawyers for the Department of Justice were wrapping up arguments in a courtroom across town in a case pitting the government squarely against Twitter. The DOJ wants the site to hand over the personal account information of several subscribers (one is American, one Dutch and one a member of the Icelandic parliament) associated with WikiLeaks, as part of a broader grand jury investigation into leaked government documents.
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The government first requested the records in December under a gag order preventing Twitter from informing even the effected subscribers that their information had been subpoenaed. First Amendment and privacy advocates have railed against the move. But most notably, lawyers for the three have decried the DOJ’s secrecy. If the government subpoenas information about users’ electronic communications, lawyers for the ACLU have argued, those people should at least have the chance to fight the order in court.

Against the backdrop of Clinton’s speech, the case makes it look as if one arm of the U.S. government is embracing the very aspects of Twitter that it hopes can help protesters connect around repressive regimes, while another arm is back in the states exploiting the connections activists of a different kind have built on the networking site.

Toward the first goal, the State Department in the past week has unveiled new Arabic and Farsi language Twitter feeds to outmaneuver censoring regimes that a generation ago might have been bypassed only by aerial leaflets or Voice of America radio.  On the Farsi feed, the State Department is offering words of encouragement for opposition activists planning a new round of protests in Iran.

“U.S. State Dept recognizes historic role of social media among Iranians. We want to join in your conversations,” the opening volley read.

“U.S. calls on Iran to allow people to enjoy the same universal rights to peacefully assemble, demonstrate as in Cairo,” broadcasted another.

Tuesday, Clinton announced more local feeds on the way, notably in Chinese, Russian and Hindi. “This is enabling us,” she said, “to have real-time two-way conversations with people wherever there is a connection that governments do not block.”

Clinton seemed aware of the perception of a U.S. double standard on Internet freedom, even as she dismissed the concern Tuesday. “Fundamentally,” she said, “the WikiLeaks incident began with an act of theft.” That case, in other words, has little to do with the principles for Internet freedom she outlined this week.

“Let me be clear,” she went on. “I said that we would have denounced WikiLeaks if it had been executed by smuggling papers in a briefcase. The fact that WikiLeaks used the Internet is not the reason we criticized it. Wikileaks does not challenge our commitment to Internet freedom.”

In China on Wednesday, U.S. embassy employees tried to start a conversation about Clinton’s speech on local micro-blogging sites (Twitter is banned there). Chinese authorities, though, quickly took down the posts, illustrating that conversations about censorship are just as easy to censor as any others. It’s easy to imagine, though, countries like China deploying another tactic that may be familiar to human-rights activists — questioning America’s authority to preach to other countries about principles it doesn’t uphold perfectly at home.

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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