Monitoring and responding to threats to Internet freedom has become part of the daily work of our diplomats and development experts.... We are taking a comprehensive and innovative approach -- one that matches our diplomacy with technology, secure distribution networks for tools and direct support for those on the front lines.Sounds great -- even setting aside the somewhat dissonant fact that the Obama administration wants to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for his role in releasing U.S. diplomatic cables. But stands like this one don't come without a price, and U.S. Internet companies -- the likes of Google (GOOG), Twitter and Facebook -- could be the ones paying it.
In the wake of the political upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt and spreading protests throughout the Middle East, Clinton argues for an inherent right to online freedom of expression -- particularly after some of those same governments hastily shut down online communications. (Another point of dissonance: some congressional representatives have.)
A call for civil liberties is a fine thing. However, given the dislike-hate relationship many governments have with the open Internet, it's also likely to engender bad feelings in in various parts of the globe. China is unlikely to be happy about charges of stealing information to hunt down dissidents. When you call Iran "awful," as Clinton did, you have to know that large numbers of people will be ticked off.
The consequence could be a backlash directed at the U.S.-based corporations that provide the services associated with the revolts, as they become easy targets. As Google found with its manager who was taken and then released by Egyptian authorities, there are corporate implications for being even passively associated with overt political actions.
Google has offices in 37 countries other than the U.S., including China, Russia, and several countries in the Middle East. Microsoft (MSFT), Yahoo (YHOO), and other Internet-related companies also have a substantial international footprint.
Corporations could act as proxies to anger. Think beyond imprisonment or physical harm. What if the local branch can no longer get official cooperation in its business ventures, or finds that a local competitor suddenly gets increased assistance? Or what if political extremists decide to travel to make a point?
At delicate times, you don't have the option of removing yourself from a geographic context or associations and presumptions. What you can do is make appropriate plans. Today, those plans had best be expansive and well thought out.
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