President Obama's advice to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to move "now" on a political transition has not been heeded as quickly as the White House hoped. But on one issue, Obama's words apparently made a difference.
Obama sternly reminded the Mubarak government Tuesday that the U.S. supported the right of the Egyptian people "to access information." It was a clear reference to the suspension of Internet access five days earlier by the Egyptian authorities. Twelve hours later, Internet services were restored.
Some Egyptian democracy activists nevertheless complained that the Obama administration had moved too slowly in pressuring the Egyptian authorities on Internet access and other democracy issues.
A possible explanation is that pushing too hard in Egypt on one goal might have been seen as jeopardizing progress elsewhere. Promoting Internet freedom, for example, could be competing with the goal of fighting terrorism — an area where the U.S. has relied on Egypt's cooperation.
"The Egyptian role in counterterrorism has been essential to us for the last 15 or 20 years," said Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism adviser to Presidents Clinton and Bush. "They've been one of the best allies we've had in the fight against al-Qaida and other radical groups."
Another example where the U.S. government didn't embrace Internet freedom enthusiastically was in its response to the WikiLeaks disclosures. Once again, it was because other policy goals interfered.
The State Department, concerned about the disclosure of state secrets, forbade its employees to look at websites that linked to classified WikiLeaks files.
"The government has held itself up for criticism around things like attempts to remove WikiLeaks from its servers or variable support for the uprisings between Tunisia and Egypt," said Clay Shirky, a new media expert at New York University.
Internet activism was supported more vigorously in Tunisia, he argues, than it was where WikiLeaks was concerned, or where counterterrorism is a higher priority.
Cybersecurity is another goal that may conflict with the promotion of Internet freedom: Imagine some country attacking the United States via the Internet. Should the U.S. government then be able to defend itself by putting some limits on the Internet? The question is under debate in the U.S. Congress.
"Computer systems of Congress and the executive branch agencies are under cyberattack an average of 1.8 billion times per month," says Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, citing a recent report by the Senate sergeant at arms.
Collins is a co-sponsor of legislation that would authorize the president to declare a "cyber-emergency" if another country wages cyberwar against the U.S. It would not allow the president to shut down the Internet like the Mubarak government did, but in exceptional circumstances it could permit some limits on Internet traffic into and out of sensitive facilities such as a power grid.
"The president could only restrict a particular part of a critical infrastructure if no other action could protect that system or asset," Collins says, emphasizing that the legislation does not authorize "killing" the Internet, as some critics have charged.
Shirky, however, poses this question: Might not Egypt's Mubarak have argued that his government faced a "cyber-emergency" — a political one, perhaps, but still a cyber-emergency?
"If the judgment is, 'We need to protect the state against things that are happening [on] the Internet,' then Mubarak's government was precisely correct in saying, 'This is a cyber-emergency,' " Shirky says. "Because if people are using these tools to do anything from resyndicating Al-Jazeera videos to coordinating when to turn out in Tahrir Square, that is — from the point of view of the Mubarak government — exactly an emergency."
The world is a complex place; U.S. policy goals have to address many concerns, and difficult choices may need to be made in places like Egypt.
The Obama administration may soon learn whether a new government there — one that more vigorously supports Internet freedom and other democratic values — could be as strong a counterterrorism ally as the Mubarak regime has been.