On the back of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call for global internet freedom late last year, Daniel Baer was sworn in as Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour in November.
Baer began by outlining that internet freedom has become a US foreign policy issue for the first time. He argues that the implications of this internet-oriented foreign policy approach is unprecedented. “Internet freedom is the application of human rights that we have advocated for an online world,” he explains as he defines the Obama administration’s starting point for understanding internet freedom.
While Baer mentions that the US government is in favour of what is essentially a non-regulated and non-restrictive internet environment, one question that naturally arose was how these principles squared up to the US government’s antagonistic approach to WikiLeaks. Can the internet freedom policy and the response to Julian Assange’s actions be reconciled? In Baer’s worldview, the answer is a resounding yes.
“To me, the issue of WikiLeaks was a breach of security concern that we would have had a problem with regardless of whether it was documents taken in a briefcase, faxed or mailed in a package,” he explains. In the view of the US authorities, the medium in this case just happened to be the internet.
“It just so happened that this time it was the internet, by supporting freedom of expression, we don’t support all actions of expression. And the action WikiLeaks took was dangerous.”
Baer says he sees no inconsistency between upholding the right to freedom and expression and criticising a particular action on the part of Assange.
But if the US government disagrees on the leaking of confidential state documents, would US intelligence, on principle, refuse to study leaked documents from another country – especially if they contained details on a rogue state like North Korea? Baer, a former Faculty Fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University, replied saying that though he had not been in politics for very long, he knew enough to know its best “not to comment on hypothetical situations”.
So, at the end of it all, where do we draw the line between freedom of speech and the national security interests of democratically elected governments? “This is a challenge that we have faced for centuries in the offline world”, Baer pointed out during our conversation. With differing ideas of legitimacy and what exactly constitutes the national security interests of a country, the issue will remain hotly debated.
On the issue of non-regulated internet, we asked Baer what strategy the US would consider in the case of the millions of individuals who face arguably the largest barrier to internet freedom: A lack of internet access. Baer says the Obama administration sees internet access as being parallel to the internet freedom agenda. “Obviously both are required to allow people to enjoy the internet,” he stated.
“In Africa there are continent wide applications that need to be attacked at an inter-government level. We see that as important. Other parts of our government are in discussions about it.” Baer further enforced the point that internet accessibility was an important parallel agenda item to internet freedom.
Where it came to government regulation of the net in the wake of anti-government organisers using social media across the Middle East and China, Baer mentioned his concerns about firewalls and overall digital safety. He added that he has concerns about digital safety and as a result wants to undertake efforts to make sure people understand the risks they are taking when online, especially in the wake of government hacking. That includes considering carefully which friend requests they accept and what types of information they place on the internet, this in light of the Tunisian government’s accessing of facebook accounts.