The United States and China clashed Thursday on whether Internet freedom should become an official part of their diplomatic agenda, as the Obama administration stepped up pressure on Beijing to ease censorship rules and investigate recent Chinese cyber-attacks.
In the first major speech on the issue by a top administration official, coming a week after Google threatened to pull out of China over hacking and censorship, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused the Chinese and other governments of “hijacking” technology “to crush dissent and deny human rights.”
“We look to the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough review of the cyber-intrusions that led Google to make its announcement, and we also look for that investigation and its results to be transparent,” Mrs. Clinton said at the Newseum in Washington.
It was not clear whether the administration will shed more light on the attacks if Beijing does not, but officials said they know much more about China’s activities than they can discuss publicly at this time.
Google, which has operated in China since 2006 and abided by the government’s censorship rules, said last week it will no longer honor those policies, which block certain words, phrases and images from the company’s search engine. It said e-mail accounts of human rights activists had been hacked. At least 30 other companies reported similar attacks.
Mrs. Clinton said such actions “violate the privacy of citizens who engage in nonviolent political speech” and “contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.”
“The United States is committed to devoting the diplomatic, economic and technological resources necessary to advance these freedoms,” she said. “We intend to address those differences [with China] candidly and consistently in the context of our positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship.”
Alec Ross, the secretary’s senior adviser for innovation who played a key role in preparing her speech, said Beijing should have no doubt that the administration is “elevating this as a matter of our diplomacy” to help the 31 percent of people around the world whose governments are “actively censoring the Internet.”
He also said the issue will become part of the U.S.-China strategic dialogue, which includes major political and economic matters between the two countries.
China disagreed, however, indicating that it will try to avoid giving Internet freedom the prominence Washington wants.
“The Google incident should not be linked to bilateral relations - otherwise, that would be over-interpreting it,” Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.
Mrs. Clinton also criticized Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and North Korea for erecting “electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks.” She said the State Department is “already working in more than 40 countries to help individuals silenced by oppressive governments.”
The department will work with the private and nongovernmental sectors to develop new tools “circumventing politically motivated censorship” in local languages, she said. She urged American technology companies to make refusal to support censorship a “trademark characteristic.”
“As I speak to you today, government censors somewhere are working furiously to erase my words from the records of history. But history itself has already condemned these tactics,” she added. “Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century.”
Mrs. Clinton also condemned the use of the Internet to “persecute or silence religious minorities.”
“Connection technologies, like the Internet and social networking sites, should enhance individuals’ ability to worship as they see fit, come together with people of their own faith, and learn more about the beliefs of others,” she said.
Leonard A. Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said he hoped the secretary’s speech will start bringing “human rights diplomacy into the 21st century.”
“The use and restriction of new technology is a future religious freedom battleground, as governments use technology to monitor religious freedom activists and stifle the flow of religious information,” he said.