U.S.-China dispute over free Internet heats up

January 22, 2010 7:40:45 PM PST
Internet freedom is quickly becoming a component of an on-going economic and diplomatic dispute impacting U.S.-China relations.

Mountain View-based Google started it by disclosing someone in China broke into its computers to read the e-mails of human rights activists, including a student at Stanford University. Now, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is speaking out on the topic.

"China, Tunisia, Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the Internet; in Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared," she said.

China's state-controlled media objected to Clinton's comments.

The State Department wants technology companies to step forward to oppose Internet censorship.

"It's a positive trend and a positive sign that companies like Google are beginning to take Internet freedom in account when making business decisions," Clinton's senior policy planning advisor Jared Cohen said.

Santa Clara-based McAfee, which helped to pinpoint the origin of the Google cyberattack, sees the State Department initiative as a major step toward making the Internet safer on a global basis.

"The education level's pretty low, the Internet's such a global architecture, yet everybody is somewhat siloed in the way in which they go about their own protection, we need to unite our forces a bit, come together as both private sector and public sector and unite ourselves to solve this," McAfee CEO Dave DeWalt said.

However, it is not clear to some legal experts what exactly Internet freedom is.

"My guess is that it will be custom negotiated, country by country, just like we do in so many of these international treaties," Santa Clara University Professor Eric Goldman said. "Countries will say, 'Here's what we do for Internet freedom, we do X, Y and Z, and we don't, on the other hand, do what these other things that you object to."

As part of its efforts, the State Department invited Google CEO Eric Schmidt to go to Baghdad in November to explore how technology could help in Iraq's reconstruction.

The State Department emphasizes this is not a one-shot, one-country issue. It intends to keep Internet freedom on the table, along with human rights and trade issues, for the long term.