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The fifth freedom

BY SIMEON TALLEY | JANUARY 28, 2010 7:30 AM

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In 1941 at his State of the Union address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt articulated his vision of four fundamental freedoms that everyone around the world should enjoy: Freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton articulated a fifth freedom for the 21st century, the freedom to connect — or what has become known as Internet freedom.

By including the freedom from want and the freedom from fear in his speech, Roosevelt went beyond traditional U.S. constitutional values protected in the First Amendment. This was an endorsement of economic and physical security, revolutionary for its time. So much has changed since then, yet the historical moment we find ourselves in now draws striking parallels.

Roosevelt’s era was a world at war, threatened by despotism and a domestic economy emerging out of the Great Depression. It was an era in which a new generation of Americans rose to meet the most profound set of national security and economic challenges the country had seen. Instruments that transmitted radio waves, e.g. radio, transformed how messages could be broadcast and how presidents and businesses alike could communicate with ordinary people. It was an unsettling and insecure period in history. And yet Roosevelt, through his words — and leading a country not quite a superpower — sought to reassure Americans at home and stoke universal aspirations abroad.

Most have interpreted Rodham Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom as a response to the Chinese government’s alleged attempt to hijack the Google e-mail accounts of Chinese dissidents. Certainly the timing of the speech was no coincidence. And the U.S. government has appropriately taken a public stance in support of Google. The speech and the nascent policy it creates however, does much more than that. Elevating Internet freedom as a human-rights issue gives credence to the notion that everyone, everywhere has a right to connect to each other and the infinite measure of ideas that exist in our world — uncensored by governments.

This is revolutionary in our time.

This past year we’ve seen governments brutally crack down on protesters and attempt to shut down Twitter. Before this most recent flagrancy with Google, the Chinese government sought to mute social networks when violence erupted between Uyghurs and ethnic Han Chinese. Bloggers in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam have been imprisoned for voicing dissident opinions.

Not so long ago, pamphlets and dissident newspapers voiced grievances when no other formal outlet was permitted. Now, e-mail, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook are empowering a new generation to tell their stories — especially youth.

Through the Internet, we can know what is happening in far and disparate places in real time, from real people. The earthquake that struck Haiti is a tragic event that has magnified broader issues such as poverty and development. Yet consider how most around the world got their information about the disaster and how many were able to find out ways that they could help. As Rodham Clinton remarked during her speech, “The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet.”

Many like to describe our world as interconnected or as one global community. The world is compressing — capital, information, goods, and services are able to travel at a dizzying pace. But there are many who can’t and aren’t able to participate in the benefits associated with globalization.

American college students spend nearly every hour of every day online either through a computer or a cell phone. Contrast that with someone whose ability to traverse the Internet is severely limited or isn’t plugged in at all.

The Internet and the tools that are equipped by it are neutral; they can be used for good or bad. Yet we know that ideas and connecting people to each other can change the world. The 21st century will be an era when another great wall tumbles — the lack of open and unfettered access to the Internet.


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