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State Department Supports Internet Freedom for Indians But Not WikiLeaks

Screen shot of State Dept. spokesperson Victoria Nuland during Aug. 21 press briefing

The United States State Department has told India that it must respect Internet freedom, as the country threatens legal action against social media like Facebook, Google and Twitter that do not remove “inflammatory” content.”

As a BBC report describes, recently there have been “clashes between indigenous tribals and Muslim settlers.” Northeastern migrants “fled other Indian cities fearing reprisal attacks.” Also, according to the BBC, the Indian authorities contend there were “threatening messages and pictures, which they allege have mostly originated in Pakistan.” The authorities suggest social media is being used for “scaremongering” and to promote violence against “ethnic minorities.” This is why the Indian authorities now propose a clampdown on social media, which the State Department appears to oppose.

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland was asked about India’s decision to pressure social media to engage in censorship of content during an August 22 press briefing:

QUESTION: Madam, I have two question, one on India and one on Pakistan.

India, after that dark – entire India was dark without electricity, now India has blocked over 250 websites because somebody put some inflammatory messages over the internet. Now India is blaming Pakistan and Mr. R.K. Singh, the Home Secretary of India. And in Pakistan, Interior Minister Rehman said that we need proof. Now Indian Prime Minister is saying that after committing the crime, Pakistan always wants the proofs, and now we have given proof to the U.S., UN, and EU.

My question is: Have you received or do you have any comments about this, what’s going on between India and Pakistan over this? Because it created unrest throughout in many major Indian cities.

MS. NULAND: Well, let me start by putting some distance between the way you framed the sequence of events and what we know. Let me start by saying that we have seen these reports that northeastern Indians are returning to the northeast from cities in southern India, and these media reports that the returns are due to concerns about personal safety. The Indian authorities themselves have called for calm, they have provided assurances of protection and safety to all people. As you know, they have called an investigation of some of the sources of the rumors that have caused people to start to move. And so we are going to obviously watch and see how that process goes forward.

On the larger question of internet freedom, you know where we are on that issue, and we are always on the side of full freedom of the internet. But as the Indian government continues to investigate these instances and preserve security, we also always urge the government to maintain its own commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms, rule of law.

QUESTION: Are you part of the investigation?


QUESTION: You’re always in support of full freedom of the internet? No qualifications? You’ve got no problems at all with WikiLeaks, do you?

MS. NULAND: WikiLeaks didn’t have to do with freedom of the internet. It had to do with the —

QUESTION: Well, some would argue that it does.

MS. NULAND: It had to do with the compromise of U.S. Government classified information.

The “compromise of US government classified information” is being investigated and prosecuted, but WikiLeaks did not “compromise” any US government databases. The person alleged to have “compromised” classified information is Pfc. Bradley Manning, and he has been charged and is in the midst of a court martial.

It is not a crime to publish classified information, yet a federal grand jury has been empaneled in Alexandria, Virginia, by the US Justice Department to investigate WikiLeaks. It has issued subpoenas for Google and Twitter data of individuals the government believes to be connected to WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks’s domain registrar, Dynadot, has been subpoenaed for server data. The government has subpoenaed and sought the private emails of former WikiLeaks volunteer & Tor Project developer Jacob Appelbaum, who has been detained multiple times at airports by federal agents who have questioned him about his links to WikiLeaks. All of this has presumably been to build a case so the government could possibly issue indictments under Section 793 of the Espionage Act and charge founders, managers or staffers with “conspiracy to commit espionage.”

But according to Trevor Timm, who is now with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Justice Department should have no case:

Justice Douglas referenced the legislative history in his concurring opinion, when he wrote of Section 793, “it is apparent that Congress was capable of, and did, distinguish between publishing and communication in the various sections of the Espionage Act.”

Washington Times columnist Tony Blankley wants Wikileaks charged under a similar provision in the Espionage Act, Section 794(b), which does include the word “publish.” Yet this statute applies only to information that is published with intent to deliver it to the enemy, a fact any prosecutor would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. While Wikileaks admits it intended to affect U.S. public opinion of the war (as Daniel Ellsberg did with the Pentagon Papers), this is far different than intending  the information for the enemy. The documents were first disseminated to only domestic and allied country newspapers to effect public opinion of the war, and Wikileaks redacted names and other information in the Iraq War logs. And while Wikileaks was criticized for not redacting names in the Afghanistan files, it had asked the government for help redacting names from the documents through an intermediary—the New York Times—and the government declined to help.

Thus, this call for India to respect Internet freedom is nothing more than American exceptionalism, a kind of “first world” arrogance on the part of the US State Department. The disconnect is not new. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has given Internet freedom speeches where she condemns WikiLeaks but pretends the US upholds Internet freedom.

WikiLeaks is seen as a threat to the US because it exposed what the government classifies as state secrets. India is not, and so chiding it for taking steps that would likely violate Internet freedom is acceptable and does not interfere with the nationalistic policies, which diplomatic foot soldiers of the US State Department pledge to defend.

More importantly, when there were London riots and the country briefly experienced a bit of civil conflict, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh said some messages on Twitter related to the riots have been “really inflammatory” and “accurate” and that officers should consider arresting those who sent incitements to violence on Twitter. What was the US State Department’s reaction to the UK’s call to limit freedom of expression?

QUESTION: Another country with civil conflict: UK. (Laughter.) What is the level of concern that the State Department has looking at those pictures on the screen? And also, are you going to warn Americans to stay away?

MS. NULAND: First, on the second part of your question, we did today reissue our standard guidance to Americans to avoid large-scale demonstrations, to take appropriate precautions, et cetera. On the broader question, you’ve seen that Prime Minister Cameron has suspended his vacation, he’s gone home. We have strong confidence in our democratic ally, the UK, to handle its internal situation democratically, and we have full confidence in them.

Other than suggesting that American tourists not join in the rioting, there was no opposition at all ever expressed. The US did not say anything to call into question the British government’s proposals to contain the situation by targeting people who had sent “inflammatory” messages. In fact, people were put on trial, convicted and now are in jail.

It does not even appear to occur to Nuland that the US law enforcement, like the FBI, might immediately send communications to social media companies in the US calling for censorship and help turning in “criminals,” who are sending “inflammatory” messages to “fuel” unrest if major US cities were suddenly hit with riots.

On top of that, United States policies do not help prevent sectarian violence. The India-Pakistan conflict is further complicated by the weekly extrajudicial executions of alleged terror suspects by drones in Pakistan and empire-building in Afghanistan. India can be a critical player in addressing problems of terrorism or violence, but the US has not been willing to fully commit to mediating this conflict. So, as Pakistan-based journalist Raza Rumi has said, this issue is “huge” but “often ignored in global policy debates on the War on Terror.” The conflict in Afghanistan cannot be isolated from “existing tensions” between Pakistan and India. The Afghanistan conflict is a kind of proxy war between the two countries. The US has given the two countries an arena for battles to be waged.

Why does the State Department speak out about a situation that could violate the rights of people in India? Or, how about why did the State Department issue a statement in defense of the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot last week, after their right to freedom of expression was violated when they were sentenced and imprisoned? Why did it issue a statement urging Bahrain to reconsider the sentencing of Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab over a tweet?

None of these expressions threaten the ability of the United States to govern or wield power. Overtures pledging support for human rights, justice, the law, freedom of expression, Internet freedom and so on and so forth also require no resources other than the few man hours, electricity and technology that went into deciding and then writing a short paragraph of public relations spin.

Finally, State Department employees, like Nuland, handle international relations. This makes it possible for them to obscure instances where US citizens are having their freedom of expression violated; for example, when a Manhattan district attorney in New York remains committed to unconstitutionally subpoenaing the Twitter data of Occupy Wall Street protesters.

The sanctimonious nature of public statements on freedom is never grasped. Were people like State Department spokesperson Nuland to realize the sheer hypocrisy of what they were dissembling each day, it would be like a robot suddenly becoming self-aware. They would lose their job. Some other unworldly being would be brought in to fill the spot of programmed individual who gives the world canned answers on foreign policy, international relations and why the US is an unwavering force for global good.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."