In an impassioned speech at the Newseum in Washington on January 21, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attacked countries who limit the free circulation of peaceful dissent and religious ideas on the Internet and those who use the Internet for the “darker purposes” of promoting violence and making sexual advances on minors. She also spoke about the increasing concern over cyberattacks. While admitting there are limits to online free speech that the US imposes, she presented these limits as universal, contrary to the unacceptable limits that are associated with repressive regimes:
All societies recognize that free expression has its limits. We do not tolerate those who incite others to violence, such as the agents of Al Qaeda who are – at this moment – using the Internet to promote the mass murder of innocent people. And hate speech that targets individuals on the basis of their ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation is reprehensible. It is an unfortunate fact that these issues are both growing challenges that the international community must confront together. We must also grapple with the issue of anonymous speech. Those who use the Internet to recruit terrorists or distribute stolen intellectual property cannot divorce their online actions from their real world identities. But these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the Internet for peaceful political purposes.
Note that “hate speech” a type of speech still protected by the US Constitution is among the examples of outlining the limits of online speech. Hate speech is illegal in countries like France and Germany, but the US has not attacked them for that limitation of free speech. It appears there is no question regarding the wisdom of restricting free speech online (copyright restrictions, surveillance, Internet filtering in public libraries and schools, bans on obscene material, these are all US phenomena) but also the conviction that OUR restrictions are good and reasonable, and theirs are bad and unreasonable. Maybe so, but let us, at least, be aware that a desire to impose our rules no matter how good they look to us on the rest of the world can be put into question and that any claim for “universal validity of government regulation” has to be taken with a grain of salt.