An 'information curtain' is descending across much of the world, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton has warned in the wake of Google's revelation of network attacks that originated in China.
Speaking on Thursday in Washington DC, Clinton said the spread of information networks was "forming a new nervous system for our planet" and had created an unprecedented number of ways to spread ideas, but that censorship and the use of the internet to find and penalise dissidents in some countries had seen a "spike" in the past year.
The secretary of state's words prompted condemnation from state-controlled newspapers in China, which said the US was trying to impose its cultural values on the rest of the world.
On 12 January, Google said its systems and those of dozens more companies had been attacked from within China, resulting in the theft of intellectual property and the attempted hacking of Gmail accounts belonging to Chinese human-rights activists.
The news drew condemnation from the US government as well as also European Commission representatives, who called the attacks a violation of free speech.
"The Berlin Wall symbolised a world divided and it defined an entire era," Clinton said in her speech at Washington's Newseum on Thursday. "Today, remnants of that wall sit inside this museum where they belong, and the new iconic infrastructure of our age is the internet. Instead of division, it stands for connection. But even as networks spread to nations around the globe, virtual walls are cropping up in place of visible walls."
Clinton pointed out that China, Tunisia and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet. She said access to social-networking sites had "suddenly disappeared" in Vietnam, and highlighted the detention last week of 30 bloggers and activists in Egypt.
"Amid this unprecedented surge in connectivity, we must also recognise that these technologies are not an unmitigated blessing," Clinton said. "These tools are also being exploited to undermine human progress and political rights."
Stating that the US supports "a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas", Clinton said electronic barriers to portions of the internet violated citizens' privacy and contravened the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
"With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world," Clinton said.
Specifically referring to "the cyber intrusions that led Google to make its announcement", Clinton repeated her call for the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough and transparent review of those attacks.
She also urged US media companies to "take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments' demands for censorship and surveillance".
'Disguised attempt to impose US values'
China's state-controlled newspapers were quick to respond. The Global Times, which is produced by the Chinese Communist Party-controlled People's Daily, said in an editorial that Clinton's praise for giving all people equal access to knowledge and ideas "would be regarded as a new threat" by people outside the West.
"The US campaign for uncensored and free flow of information on an unrestricted internet is a disguised attempt to impose its values on other cultures in the name of democracy," the editorial stated.
"The hard fact that Clinton has failed to highlight in her speech is that [the] bulk of the information flowing from the US and other Western countries is loaded with aggressive rhetoric against those countries that do not follow their lead."
The paper said unrestricted online access was "only one-way", because disadvantaged countries cannot produce as much information as Western countries. "Countries disadvantaged by the unequal and undemocratic information flow have to protect their national interest, and take steps toward this."
The editorial added: "The free flow of information is a universal value treasured in all nations, including China, but the US government's ideological imposition is unacceptable and, for that reason, will not be allowed to succeed."
In her speech, Clinton suggested that "all societies recognise that free expression has its limits", citing restrictions on hate speech or terrorist recruitment as examples. Questioned about this statement by an audience member, she said governments should "err on the side of openness".
She also urges countries engaging in web censorship to consider the impact of this approach on their own economic growth, arguing that "if corporate decision makers don't have access to global sources of news and information, investors will have less confidence in their decisions over the long term".
The secretary of state also announced plans for the US government, in conjunction with industry, academia and non-governmental organisations, to create applications and technologies using mobile phones and mapping applications to "empower citizens and leverage [the US's] traditional diplomacy".