Information now moves around the world at unprecedented speeds. An event in one location spreads across the planet in minutes. We get our news in real time, from real people. We can respond in real time, in ways that were not even imagined a few years ago.
During his visit to China in November 2009, for example, President Obama responded to a question via the internet. He told listeners, both cyber and physical, “The more freely information flows, the stronger societies become.” He said information helps citizens hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages entrepreneurship. This is why I’ve come here this evening. Even in Uganda, the world is getting smaller. The internet, via cyber cafés and smart phones, is everywhere from a village in Arua to the capital, Kampala.
Amid this surge in connectivity, there are inherent dangers. Some will exploit technology to undermine human progress. The same networks that help organize movements for freedom can also enable al-Qaida and al-Shabab to incite violence against the innocent. Technologies that can open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.
In the last year, we’ve seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information around the world. Several countries increased their censorship of the internet. Recently in Egypt, for example, 30 bloggers and activists were detained for what they put on the web. While it is clear that the spread of technology is transforming our world, it is still unclear how that transformation will affect the human rights and the human welfare of the world’s population – including those here in Uganda.
US Ambassador to Uganda Jerry P Lanier\'s speech on Internet Freedom and Social MediaWhat is clear though, is that internet Freedom is no different from the freedom of religion or the freedom of speech. Internet freedom is becoming the freedom of assembly for the 21st century. Blogs, emails, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship.Efforts of some governments to deny their citizens unfettered internet access is no different than the construction of the Berlin Wall. Virtual walls are replacing visible walls. Some governments have erected electronic barriers to prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks and have expunged words, names, and phrases from search-engine results that they didn’t like.
These actions violate the privacy of citizens who engage in nonviolent political speech. They contravene the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of borders.
However, all societies also recognize that free expression has its limits. We cannot tolerate those who incite others to violence. Hate speech that targets individuals on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation is reprehensible and must be condemned in the strongest of terms.
But these challenges must not become an excuse for governments or individuals to violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes. As we work to advance freedoms, we must also work against those who use communication networks as tools of disruption and fear.
There are, of course, hundreds of millions of people living without the benefits of these technologies. In our world, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said, “talent may be distributed universally, but opportunity is not.” And we know from long experience that promoting social and economic development in countries where people lack access to knowledge, markets, capital, or opportunity can be frustrating. In this context, the internet can serve as a great equalizer.
By providing people with access to knowledge and potential markets, social networks can create opportunities where none exists. Examples like the farmer who can now use a cell phone application to find out the current market price for his produce in order to sell at the right time and maximize his earnings have a direct impact right here in Uganda. A connection to global information networks is like an on-ramp to modernity that can help lift people out of poverty.
To support this, today I’m announcing that the U.S. Mission to Uganda has launched a new social media platform. The Mission created a Facebook page as well as channels on Twitter, Flicker, and YouTube. We take this initiative to open a more free and transparent dialogue on key issues with and between the people of Uganda. We want to hear what you have to say. We want you to communicate with each other.
Whether it’s economic, cultural, political, or just whether the Cranes are going to beat the Harambee Stars, via social media, all Ugandans can have their voices heard, and the U.S. Mission wants to be a part of that discussion. I invite you all to visit these pages, which you see displayed around the venue this evening, and to communicate with us on issues of importance to you.
Pursuing the freedoms I’ve talked about this evening is, I believe, the right thing to do. By advancing this agenda, we align our principles, our economic goals, and our strategic priorities. Social media is changing the way the world works. It is important that Uganda is not left behind. And by virtue of your presence here this evening, you are part of this dynamic new frontier..
So let us make these technologies a force for progress in Uganda and in the region. Let us go forward together to champion internet freedom for our time and use social media to create a more level playing field for our young people who deserve every opportunity we can give them.