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Obama talks Twitter, urges openness

From NBC's Athena Jones
SHANGHAI -- The free-flow of information strengthens societies by allowing citizens to demand accountability from their leaders, Pres. Obama told a room full of Chinese university students at a town hall here on Monday.

While the president joked that he is not a member of the Twitterati, it's no surprise that the man who harnessed the Internet to help raise money and rally supporters during last year's historic election believes in the power of the web. In one of the most interesting exchanges of the roughly hourlong event, Obama made a point of denouncing government censorship and argued that "the more open we are, the more we can communicate."

"Let me say that I have never used Twitter," the president said when asked whether he was familiar with the so-called "firewall", a method the Chinese government uses to block access to certain web sites, and whether the Chinese should be able to use Twitter freely.

The mention of Twitter was especially interesting given its prominence during the protests after Iran's disputed presidential election last summer.

"My thumbs are too clumsy to type in things on the phone," he continued. "But I am a big believer in technology and I'm a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information. I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable."

Shanghai is Obama's third stop on a four-nation tour, his first trip to Asia as president. In his opening remarks, the president spoke about the importance of having a  "mutually beneficial" partnership with China on issues ranging from the global economic recovery, to climate change and nuclear disarmament. But he also touched on what he called the "universal rights" of freedom of expression and worship, free access to information and political participation, principles that he said were not unique to America. It was a subtle way of contrasting America with this host country which places numerous restrictions on its citizens.

Still, it was unclear how far Obama's message would reach. While the event streamed live on the Internet here in China, none of the several dozen people at an Internet café here watched, choosing games and email instead.

Calling himself a "strong supporter of open Internet use" and a "big supporter of non-censorship," Obama said that unrestricted use of the Internet in America was a source of strength and something that should be encouraged.

"I've always been a strong supporter of open Internet use," he said. "I'm a big supporter of non-censorship. This is part of the tradition of the United States that I discussed before, and I recognize that different countries have different traditions. I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free Internet -- or unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged."

He allowed that the open flow of information meant he was constantly exposed to criticism, but argued that fact made America's democracy stronger and made him a better leader because it forced him to hear contrary opinions.

The question was posed by an Internet user who Obama said had posted it on the U.S. Embassy's web site on behalf of what the questioner said were China's 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers. It was read by US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.

Before taking the question, the president noted that a US journalist had chosen it among the thousands submitted, a comment that piqued the interest of the traveling press. In fact, the journalist did not review any of the questions submitted and instead picked among them at random, by simply picking a number.

The event had a somewhat staged feel. The president was asked twice about his Nobel Peace Prize win and there was a surprising online question, purportedly from a Taiwanese businessman worried that proposed arms shipments from the U.S. to Taiwan would hurt cross-strait relations. The question drew applause. Mr. Obama ducked the arms part of the question but did talk up one-China policy.

In comments reminiscent of talking points from supporters on the campaign trail, students who spoke with NBC after the event were uniformly complimentary, hailing the president's friendliness, his character and his "impressive speech."