If you’re reading this, you probably live in a country where the Internet provides a portal for the free exchange of ideas. But in many countries, believe it or not, what so many of us take for granted is unfathomable. In others, it is a smoldering memory.
Every day, governments around the world devote precious resources to Internet censorship. It is 21st Century book burning -- and it doesn’t make anyone stronger. This brand of suppression affects all of us: In an era in which the Internet serves as the world’s community forum, censorship anywhere is a threat to freedom of speech everywhere.
The United States’ history on freedom of expression has not always lived up to our highest values -- we have slipped at times -- but always we have tried to live up to this fundamental conviction at the heart of our nation’s founding principles. We’re strongest when we do -- strongest when we act in accordance with our belief in the free market of ideas, trusting that our values are strong enough to withstand opposition. We have found that the most powerful weapon against hateful, libelous or untrue speech is more speech.
True, there are times when certain types of speech -- criticism of policies, or worse, stories revealing scandals -- seem at first to undermine our government. Some officials may be tempted to view the press or open-discussion forums as the enemy. The way we respond to criticism is what separates vibrant democracies from authoritarian regimes. Indeed, the fact that our 68th Secretary of State was once a full-time dissenter is proof positive that dissent makes us stronger not weaker.
Democracies know that public criticism holds governments accountable. There have been countless instances in U.S. history in which individuals or media outlets have uncovered abuses or disclosed policy mistakes. While painful, these episodes demonstrate that public criticism provides essential feedback for representative governments. Encouraging open debates communicates an eagerness to improve and to grow as a country. Shutting down opposing views is not a demonstration of strength.
Ultimately, the battle against the openness and connectivity embodied by the Internet is a losing one. Walls are built then scaled, raised then circumvented. Twitter is blocked and tweets still fly. YouTube is shut down and videos are still streamed.
Government leaders must accept that they do not have the power to prevent conversations from taking place. They only have the choice of whether to participate in them. And you can be sure that if people are banned from social media they will find other ways to voice their opinions.
The determination to communicate is universal, and the right to free speech should be universal, too. Governments that try to silence their own people are fighting a losing battle -- and one that is a recipe for greater social unrest.
About the Author: Doug Frantz serves as the Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs at the Department. He was previously a journalist for more than 35 years, reporting from 40 countries. He served as the New York Times Istanbul bureau chief and investigations editor, Washington Post national security editor, and Los Angeles Times managing editor.
For more information, see Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index 2014.