In her second major speech on Internet freedom Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. government was not being hypocritical in simultaneously trumpeting the cause of government transparency around the world and condemning the WikiLeaks publication of confidential U.S. documents.
"The WikiLeaks incident began with an act of theft," Clinton said in her speech, titled "Internet Rights and Wrongs." "Government documents were stolen, just the same as if they had been smuggled out in a briefcase."
The argument that releasing the documents to the public promoted transparency didn’t hold water, she argued. "The United States could neither provide for our citizens’ security nor promote the cause of human rights and democracy around the world if we had to make public every step of our efforts. Confidential communication gives our government the opportunity to do work that could not be done otherwise."
Consider our work with former Soviet states to secure loose nuclear material. By keeping the details confidential, we make it less likely that terrorists or criminals will find the nuclear material and steal it for their own purposes. Or consider the content of the documents that WikiLeaks made public. Without commenting on the authenticity of any particular documents, we can observe that many of the cables released by WikiLeaks relate to human rights work carried on around the world. Our diplomats closely collaborate with activists, journalists, and citizens to challenge the misdeeds of oppressive governments. It is dangerous work. By publishing diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks exposed people to even greater risk.
A little over a year ago, Clinton gave her first landmark speech on Internet freedom at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The U.S. government subsequently became the target of a backlash after condemning the actions of WikiLeaks. But, said Clinton on Tuesday, "The fact that WikiLeaks used the Internet is not the reason we criticized its actions. WikiLeaks does not challenge our commitment to internet freedom."
Clinton also made a point of laying to rest any rumors that the U.S. government put pressure on private companies to cease doing business with WikiLeaks. In the days following the organization’s latest leaks, several U.S. companies, including Amazon and PayPal, cut WikiLeaks loose. "Business decisions that private companies may have taken to enforce their own values or policies regarding WikiLeaks were not at the direction of the Obama Administration," Clinton said.
[Image: Flickr user Center for American Progress Action Fund]
E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com’s SiliconValley reporter. Email.