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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 13:44 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 13:44 | SYDNEY

Clinton's speech on internet freedom

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22 January 2010 10:20

I found myself nodding along with parts of this Yevgeny Morozov critique of Hillary Clinton's speech.

Her singular focus on censorship tends to obscure some important developments, and more specifically, her focus on censorship of 'news and information' in the China-Google section of the speech suggests a Web 1.0 mentality. As Kaiser Kuo told me earlier this week, Chinese censors are these days far less worried about news sites and much more concerned about social media. (In fairness, Clinton does refer social media earlier in the speech.)

I also think the Google case demonstrates that Clinton's argument about the link between internet freedom and commercial success is unconvincing. She says:

For companies, this issue is about more than claiming the moral high ground. It really comes down to the trust between firms and their customers. Consumers everywhere want to have confidence that the internet companies they rely on will provide comprehensive search results and act as responsible stewards of their own personal information. Firms that earn that confidence of those countries and basically provide that kind of service will prosper in the global marketplace. I really believe that those who lose that confidence of their customers will eventually lose customers. No matter where you live, people want to believe that what they put into the internet is not going to be used against them.

It may be true that companies want to know their search results are uncensored and their mail isn't being monitored, though the fact that Google isn't being followed by a procession of multinationals as it heads out China's door suggests the link between commerce and internet freedom is an indirect one, at best.

There's also a countervailing commercial incentive, which is that companies want consistency and predictability of service. Consider the millions of Gmail users in China (with a number of big companies among them, no doubt). Google offers substantial information storage to its Gmail users, either free or at very cheap rates. But because all this information is stored in the online 'cloud' rather in personal hard drives, China's Gmail users may soon find their valuable information on the other side of the great firewall.

For companies in China choosing an internet service, a disruption of this kind would surely weigh more heavily on them than free speech considerations. Why take the risk of choosing an internet provider that is in bad odour with the government? My guess is, consistency of service tends to trump openness as a business consideration, which hands a great deal of power to the Chinese Government.

Finally, an etymological note: if Clinton's speech is any indication, Americans are undecided about the use of 'cell phone' as opposed to 'mobile phone'. By my observation, 'cell phone' has always been restricted to North America while other English speakers used 'mobile phone'. With Clinton using both interchangeably, is this an example of globalisation changing US English? (UPDATE: A colleague tells me Indians traditionally favour 'cell' but increasingly accept 'mobile'; another says it has always been 'mobile' among SE Asian English speakers.)

Photo by Flickr user purplemattfish, used under a Creative Commons license.

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