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Hillary Clinton's plan to topple dictators with an open Internet

The ouster of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia made it imperative for Hillary Clinton to lay out a US plan to keep the Internet open for people seeking freedom. But exactly how remains an open question.

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said all the right things in a speech on Internet freedom today. She was modest in admitting that the US government didn’t have all the answers – or even know all the right questions to ask – in shaping an open Internet worldwide in the future.

She urged repressive regimes to consider the “dictator’s dilemma” – that when they restrict or harass Internet use it will only harm them and their country in the long run. She termed preserving a free and open Internet “one of the grand challenges of our time.”

The fall of autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt – with the possibility of more to come – came about at least in part because of online social media, from Twitter to Facebook to YouTube. The debate over just how crucial these new media were to the uprisings is just beginning. One could reasonably argue that outstanding coverage by Al Jazeera, in the form of traditional old-style televised reporting, played just as significant a role. As is often pointed out, the Egyptian protest continued on to a successful conclusion even after the government pulled the plug on Internet access.

But what’s already clear is that Internet’s role was real and significant. And now the Obama administration has begun to move beyond words to actions in promoting a free Internet worldwide. Clinton said that it will spend $20 million this year and $25 million next year funding a variety of programs, acting as a kind of venture capitalist to underwrite a number of approaches.

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