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The fifth freedom Add to ...

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, last week put her government's international muscle firmly behind an open Internet. Her speech is worth heeding, and has policy ideas that ought to be considered as part of Canada's public diplomacy.

Ms. Clinton invoked Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech to show how the Internet can not only promote freedoms of expression and worship, and freedom from want and fear, but also unleash a new freedom: the freedom to connect. As Ms. Clinton said, "The Internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all other" networks. That power fuels the Internet's democratizing potential (something that the Canadians who organized and attended last weekend's anti-prorogation rallies also recognized).

But for many, the Internet is not free. The OpenNet Initiative (co-led by Ron Deibert at the Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto's Munk Centre) reported last week that over 560 million people - or around one-third of the world's online audience - have substantial limits placed on their Internet use. Tens of thousands of Internet censors work for the Chinese government alone.

And so, Ms. Clinton argued, democratic governments cannot just hope for an open Internet to emerge. In unusually prescriptive terms, she called for businesses to promote Internet freedom in their international dealings, just as the corporate social responsibility movement got them to promote better environmental and labour conditions. Media companies should report publicly on the attempts by governments to filter undesirable content. She announced funding for citizens and software developers to create new tools that would help citizens connect online.

Promoting Internet access through these forms of soft power, and helping local populations undermine autocratic censors, serve a strategic purpose. Better online democratic tools can be produced at a low cost, and they allow people in their home countries to do more of the actual work of promoting democracy, lessening the credibility of government attempts to paint them as Western stooges (as activists in Iran and Cuba have experienced).

A recent gambit by Google shows how soft power can be flexed in the quest for more Internet freedom. It threatened to close its Chinese search engine, which it had filtered, after a cyberattack believed to have originated in China. If governments can follow suit with direct involvement and strong rhetoric, the Internet can be more free, and the world more democratic.

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