Internet Access Doesn't Have to Undermine National Security

Last month, China unveiled new measures to strengthen internet surveillance, requiring hotels, bars, and restaurants offering Wi-Fi to install technology that will log the identity of users and monitor their Web activity. These new regulations were established just seven weeks after the release of a UN report, calling internet access a human right while commending the internet for "[contributing] to the progress of mankind as a whole." 

The report comes in the wake of innovative internet usage, which threatened to compromise U.S. national security interests (in the Wikileaks scandal case) and to promote democracy (in the Arab Spring). This declaration will serve as a basis for international scrutiny toward nations that censor internet access among their populations. Recent incidences present the range of ways the internet can be a tool to jeopardize a state’s stability and can be a force for social change.

By releasing 250,000 classified documents, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange utilized the internet to create greater transparency, and in doing so, undoubtedly compromised U.S. national security. As Truman National Security Project Partner Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza explains, the accessibility of the documents "implicitly invokes a series of actions that did threaten U.S. national security — accessing, stealing, and publishing classified material pertaining to defense and diplomacy."

Additionally, the release may hinder future cooperation from parties fearing exposure of private business operations. By creating these problems internationally for the U.S., the Wikileaks scandal highlighted the need for some level of secrecy to protect the United States and its citizens. In order to operate most efficiently, governments must be able to guarantee some level of confidentiality. Wikileaks threatened their ability to do so. Incidents like these fuel supporters of internet censorship who argue that restrictions are in the name of national security.

On the other hand, the Arab Spring demonstrated how the internet can be used to spread democratic values, revealing that, "social media is becoming the fabric of civil society that is otherwise missing from autocratic states.” The internet has become a forum to call for change in repressive societies. The UN report underscored this positive usage of the internet — a medium through which progressive organizing can take place.

Egyptian Wael Ghonim used the internet in this way to lead the call for revolution in Egypt. He created a Facebook event, after an image of Khaled Said — a man purportedly beaten because he had access to a video of police selling illegal drugs — went viral. Ghonim then created an event announcing a protest, and thousands of disenchanted citizens turned out to call for changes to the oppressive Mubarak regime. The internet's ability to channel and connect this progressive movement led to an attempted national internet shutdown. However, the movement for change had already gained so much momentum that the shutdown had little impact in thwarting a revolution. Citizens of repressive regimes across North Africa and the Middle East followed suit, using the internet to spread the message of Egypt's success and incite revolutions of their own.

Critics will challenge the affirmation that unrestricted internet access is a human right by suggesting that it can jeopardize national security, an argument often used to defend censoring. However, internet censorship is not a real solution to securing state secrets. The U.S. can lead the way in allowing transparency without compromising national security by instituting more stringent internal security measures, including a stronger emphasis on cyber security.

The government must strike this balance in the hope that nations such as China will follow suit. Like it or not, the internet is considered a human right by a body with the legitimacy to make such claims. Thus, nations that censor the internet in the name of national security — including our own — will face international scrutiny. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Elsa Voytas

I am a student at the College of William and Mary about to begin my junior year. My majors are International Relations and Latin American Studies, and I will be spending the next four months in Argentina. This summer, I interned in the Communications Department at the Truman National Security Project and spent two weeks in Guatemala researching the trials since the end of the military dictatorship. At school, I am a research assistant for the AidData project (aiddata.org) which catalogs and aggregates data on foreign aid projects as part of an effort to increase transparency in development finance.

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