As Secretary Clinton returns from Africa, here in Washington D.C. the State Department has been hosting some of the world's best known and most influential bloggers, including several headliners from Africa. The bloggers are part of a larger international group of online journalists and activists from Egypt, Tunisia, Uganda, Bahrain, Burma, China and at least a dozen other countries. They have already met with Secretary Clinton's Senior Advisor for Innovation, Alec Ross, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Daniel Baer. Also on tap are discussions with government and independent U.S. bloggers and several groups working on promoting freedom of expression on the Internet.
We had the pleasure of meeting with this group to discuss with them our work on DipNote and USAID's Impact Blog and were deeply inspired by their thoughtful questions and brave stories. The bloggers wanted to know: "How can we maintain access to the web in our countries and how can we protect ourselves from official crackdowns on on-line activism?" Most had personal stories of detention and harassment. Many said they expected to be arrested once they returned to their countries. All insisted they would not -- could not -- back down.
As one young blogger from the Middle East said, "Our blogs are our voice, and our voices are finally being heard."
So what are we doing to protect those voices? Secretary Clinton has clearly and consistently promoted Internet freedom. During her remarks on this subject in January, she said, "On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas."
And as Alec Ross said to the bloggers in Washington, "There are more than 190 countries in the world today and we have the exact same internet policy in every single one of them: Keep it free and open." He went on to discuss efforts to provide new technologies to bloggers around the world that would help them remain anonymous while on-line. He also outlined a Department-wide push to use social media to reach out to the general public in countries where we may have traditionally only been able to interact with a tiny slice of the total population.
"The key," he said, "is to remember that social media isn't about changing minds. It's about connecting with other people and hearing their opinions. I have told all our ambassadors -- you have one mouth but two ears. Use them!"
Daniel Baer connected the State Department's work on Internet freedom promotion with the work of the bloggers and discussed emerging challenges to online free expression in their countries. When asked by one blogger about what she can do, Baer replied "Keep being you." He went on to describe the State Department's diplomatic efforts to expand online free expression in a number of countries.
Indeed, this week's Foreign Press Center-sponsored blogger tour -- combined with a global exchange program of Internet Freedom Fellows-- occurs in large part as a result of our listening to bloggers in the field, many of whom reported a surge in on-line crackdowns and voiced a desire to network with their international peers. This past May hundreds of journalists and freedom of expression advocates from across the world traveled here for the 2011 UNESCO World Press Freedom Day events. We're pleased to see that many of the participants around the globe continue to carry on the conversations that began during those meetings.
And late last week, a follow-up group of human rights activists and bloggers traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to attend a Human Rights Council session on, "Maintaining an Open Internet for Human Voices of Freedom." That group, including our bloggers from Africa, is now in Washington D.C., where they will participate in the Foreign Press Center's "Foreign Reporting Tour: Blogging for Social and Political Change."
There is little doubt they all share an absolute and unyielding commitment to Internet freedom and can inspire likeminded activists from around the world.