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Information technologies are revolutionizing how governments interact with their citizens, and how citizens interact with each other. Across the Middle East, anti-government activists are harnessing the power of social media to rally against regimes. Meanwhile, governments in Iran and China are using sophisticated tools to police the web. So what do these new tech challenges mean for American diplomacy?
- Alec Ross Senior Adviser on Innovation, Department of State
Technology played a critical role in helping organize protesters and amplify their grievances in Egypt and Tunisia. But YouTube and Twitter didn’t cause the uprisings playing out across the Middle East. Alec Ross explains the different roles technology has played.
On February 15th, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered her second major address on “Internet Freedom,” the principle that all countries should protect freedoms of assembly and speech in the digital square (see video of the speech below). But what happens when that principle creates tensions with U.S. allies?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “Internet Rights and Wrongs: Choices and Challenges in a Networked World” (February 15, 2011; George Washington University)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at America University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It was a radical step from a government rapidly losing its grip on power. On January 28, the government of Egypt plunged 20 million Internet users into darkness. The revolution was being televised in fits and starts, but it was also being tweeted, facebooked and recorded on mobile phones.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo the government shut down the Internet. Five thousand eight hundred miles away those same social networking tools are challenging old assumptions about American diplomacy. The state department is tweeting in Arabic and Farsi. It's also flushing out an ambitious new pillar for American foreign policy, Internet freedom, the principle that all countries should protect freedoms of assembly and speech in the digital square. We're joined this hour by Alec Ross. He is senior advisor on innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. His job description covers Internet freedom, social media and other technology issues. He can also lay claim to being the third most followed American government official in the tweeter sphere behind President Obama and Senator John McCain. Alec Ross, good to see you again.
MR. ALEC ROSSGreat to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIIt's been five weeks since the president of Tunisia was overthrown and since then we've seen protests and uprisings across the Middle East. This weekend, Bahrain and Libya became the latest countries to see anti-government uprisings. From a technological perspective, you draw a distinction between what's happening in countries like Egypt and what's happening right now in Libya or Bahrain. Why?
ROSSSo I think it's a remarkable moment in time and obviously there's unrest throughout much of the Middle East right now. But I think it's important, at least as it relates to technology, to not assume that what is happening in Tunisia is exactly what happened in Egypt and exactly what's happening in Bahrain or Libya. Point, in fact, each of those countries have very different information environments and the role of technology and unrest in each of those places is distinct. It's just very different.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, if you'd like to join this conversation. From your perspective, what actually happened in Tunisia or Egypt? We know that there were very real grievances that frankly had nothing to do with technology. In what ways can a cell phone or an Internet connection influence an uprising when there are already underlying grievances?
ROSSThat's a great question and I think part of your premise there is important. I don't believe that these were Facebook revolutions or Twitter revolutions or technology revolutions. They were people-based revolutions. Technology and social media is just a tool. Now, they're very powerful tools, but just a tool.
ROSSYou know, I think if you look at Tunisia and Egypt with just the benefit of a few weeks of hindsight, I think it's pretty clear that technology did three things, all of which were significant. Number one, it acted as an accelerant. So movement making the historically would've taken months or years, in basements, in face-to-face settings under a cover a night, took place in a matter of weeks.
ROSSThe second thing I think we've learned is that it makes weak ties strong. What does that mean? If you look in Egypt, for example, there are people of remarkably different interests. You know, people who were very secular, people who were very religious but they were all coming together, in part, through social media. So for at least a moment in time, social media makes weak ties stronger.
ROSSNow, that may not be enough to hold into governance, but it was for rebellion. And then, thirdly, it distributes leadership. So if you think about 20th century rebels, you think about people like, you know, Che Guevara and you know, charismatic figureheads inspiring and organizing the masses. What we saw in both Tunisia and in Egypt was that there wasn't a Che Guevara-like figure behind these, but rather because of technology, leadership was widely distributed.
NNAMDII'm going glad you brought that up because as we were all watching the Egypt protest gain momentum, a young Google executive named Wael Ghonim became a figurehead of the protest movement, a role that he quickly disputed. And I guess he disputed it because for the most part, these uprisings, as you pointed out, haven't had any really identifiable leaders. What's the significance of that?
ROSSI think it's extremely significant and what Wael Ghonim did was very interesting. You know, he was made into this figurehead and people were beginning to rally around him. And he flat out rejected it. He said, no, absolutely, positively not. The network, so to speak, is the leader behind this. Now, here's where you have to be clear-eyed.
ROSSI think it's very important to not be utopian about technology. You can't sprinkle the Internet on something. We all grew up to be happy, healthy, wealthy and wise. And using technology to exercise descent, what that doesn't necessarily do is translate into governance. And if political vacuums are created because these are relatively leaderless movements, I guarantee you that vacuum isn't going to be around for long. Somebody or something will fill it.
NNAMDIIndeed, I found the "60 Minutes" last night profile on the leader in Tunisia, the guy who burned himself, threw gasoline on himself and burned, became a leader of a revolution that he didn't even participate in in Tunisia. So that was -- I thought that was particularly significant.
NNAMDILast week, Secretary Hillary Clinton delivered her second major address on Internet freedom at George Washington University.
MS. HILLARY CLINTONThe Internet has become the public space of the 21st century, the world's town square, classroom, marketplace, coffeehouse and nightclub. We all shape and are shaped by what happens there, all 2 billion of us and counting and that presents a challenge. To maintain an Internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that will guide us, what rules exist and should not exist and why, what behaviors should be encouraged or discouraged and how.
NNAMDIWe'd like to hear how you respond to some of the questions that Secretary Clinton raised. Call us at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Alec Ross, who is senior advisor on innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Tell us about the framework that Secretary Clinton is putting forth here?
ROSSSo this speech about Internet freedom, I think, is going to go down as one of the more important speeches in memory about the Internet. A year ago, she gave a speech elevating Internet freedom as a matter of our foreign policy and what she did in recognizing that was that this wasn't about technology. This was about very long standing American values.
ROSSYou know, our first Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson said, the only legitimate foundation for government is the will of its people and to protect its free expression should be our first order. As a very practical matter, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, these things increasingly manifest themselves on the Internet.
ROSSAnd so what she did is said, you know, forget about years long and decades long commitment to these issues. If we're going to be committed to them in this day and age, we need to be committed to them on the Internet. Now, with this speech, part of what she did is she took a very clear-eyed view at some of the tensions that are created by our increasingly powerful and ubiquities networks.
ROSSThis goes back to the point that the Internet is not a safe-all for everybody, that, you know, it can be used for ill as easily as it can be used for good and it takes on the intentions of the users. So what she did is she laid out a framework for governments the world-around to help collates around norms. So just like we have norms around free expression, like we have norms around others of our freedoms, we now really need them for the Internet. And the first principle has to be for governments, in part, do no harm.
NNAMDIWell, you mentioned some of the tensions that the secretary of state mentioned, more specifically, well, most of the people in this country would probably agree that free speech on the web is very important, freedom of assembly now provided by social networks. But this idea is not without its detractors. First and foremost, just like free speech in the real world, speech over the web sometimes ends up infringing on other rights and ideas that we treasure, for example, terrorist's groups and terrorist sympathizers using the Internet to mobilize and get their message out.
ROSSThat's exactly right. If you go to an Internet café in South Beirut, part of what you can see is in the Internet cafes that are just chalk-a-block full of young boys. Hezbollah has set up all of the terminals so that the homepages are Jihad websites, the purpose of which is to radicalize the young people. They've modified videogames so that instead of shooting monsters or aliens, you're shooting Israeli soldiers.
ROSSIt's very important to remember that technology is value neutral and inanimate. It can be used by anybody and it can be used by a variety of different people with different intentions. And one of the things that we have seen is how Al Qaeda, how Hezbollah and how other organizations that are absolutely malignant right down to their core are themselves becoming increasingly sophisticated about how to use these information networks.
NNAMDI800-433-8850's the number to call. Let's go to Patrick in Greenbelt, Md. Patrick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PATRICKHi. I was just curious as to how your guest today would consult with the secretary of state about Net neutrality and that way it's (unintelligible) to facilitate freedom over the globe and whatnot because if you have to pay for the amount of Internet that you have, you know, will it be available to be able to use as a tool if you can't afford to help these people, like, you know, search and...
NNAMDIPatrick probably knows that this is an Internet freedom issue that we've been debating here on our "Tech Tuesdays" for quite a while. Do you see any relationship between the Net neutrality issue, which has to do with carriage and whether or not people have to pay for it and Internet freedom?
ROSSYeah, there hasn't been a whole lot of overlap. I mean, there are 195 countries on planet Earth and the secretary of state works on 194 of them. The one where she doesn't have a specific focus is on the United States, where, of course, there's been a Net neutrality debate raging. You know, what I will point out is that, you know, as a member of this administration and given her own personal history in this, both she and the president have always voiced support for our having a neutral network. But as a very practical matter on Internet freedom, Net neutrality issues of carriage has largely been peripheral.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call Patrick. You, too, can call us on the specific issue we're discussing today. Do you see tensions between promoting Internet freedom and other values we hold dear? Should the U.S. make open networks part of its national strategy? 800-433-8850, you can send e-mail to email@example.com or send us a tweet at kojoshow.
NNAMDIWhen it comes to bloggers and democracy activists in the Middle East, American policymakers face a whole host of different, sometimes competing priorities. Should we support democracy activists if the government in power is undemocratic on the one hand, but on the other hand friendly with Washington? That's the dilemma we faced in Egypt, was it not?
ROSSWell, you know, certainly it was an issue. And our approach is to just be very, very consistent. We have a view on Internet freedom and supporting the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly and the freedom of speech everywhere. It doesn't matter if it's friend or foe. And so what you saw was, in Egypt for example, which has been a decade's long ally of the United States, the president and the secretary of state, they spoke out very loudly in the midst of very tense times, calling for the end of the communications blackout.
ROSSI thought it was really cool, frankly, to see Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton calling out social media specifically. You know, Tunisia had been an ally of ours and yet we were the first nation to speak out. You know, we convoked their ambassador, you know. We hauled in their ambassador here in Washington. We dealt with this in Tunisia and they weren't very happy about it. But I think the key here is to hold a consistence to the set of standards for a friend and foe alike.
NNAMDIThese are, in some respects, classic questions about when a friend who has a government to which people are objecting in under siege, so to speak. But doesn't technology give these classic questions a new immediacy?
ROSSIt absolutely does, because part of what it does is it puts processing and distribution power in the hands of individuals, the way that it didn't exist even five years ago. You know, I got to tell you, it wasn't that long ago that the way we got all of our information, all of our news, was by listening to the radio, picking up the morning newspaper and watching an evening news broadcast. Now, each of those three media types remain very important and frankly, they remain, you know, the majority of how people consume information.
ROSSBut now we're getting content from dozens and, in many cases, hundreds of sources and so it absolutely plays this disruptive role. If you give people information, you give them power. And if you give people the ability to produce information and distribute it at scale -- you know, look, folks who are not necessarily famous, when they're able to reach tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people, that makes them more powerful than they would have been five or ten years ago.
NNAMDIBecause if you're an embassy official in the past, you're looking at political leaders, government and opposition, you're looking at business leaders and you're looking at the major journals, the major newspapers or radio or television in that community. Now, you have a much broader variety of influence makers to deal with in that society because of the Internet.
ROSSLet me tell you the job of a diplomat is getting harder. It is not getting easier, you know? And I give Hillary Clinton an enormous amount of credit for this. When she was -- when she was testifying before the Senate for her nomination, she said, we are no longer -- she said the promise and the peril of the 21st century are no longer bound by vast distances or natural borders. And part of what is at the core of that is technology. And if you are going to be an effective diplomat in this day and age, it's not just about meeting with the CEO.
ROSSIt's not just about meeting with the government minister. You've got to be sensitive to a much more complex and much more distributed information environment. Now this is an area where, look, you know, the State Department makes mistakes. But this is an area where, I think, we deserve to beat our chest a little bit because in the past two years, the State Department has gotten very sophisticated about connecting and engaging with people over social media and recognizing that people are getting their news and information from more than newspapers and radio.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Alec Ross. He is senior adviser on innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you see tensions between promoting Internet freedom and other values we hold dear? You could also go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or e-mail us, firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Alec Ross. He's senior adviser on innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. We're talking about Internet freedom and its relationship to U.S. diplomacy and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Alec, as these stories unfold, social networks often have more up-to-date information than the professional media, but that information can be highly subjective, highly partisan. How do you know what information is usable or worth reacting to?
ROSSYeah, that's a great question. The whole notion of authentication is important because while having open platforms is part of what makes these things so strong, it also very easily lends itself to people just saying things that aren't true and to manipulating the truth. So this is where trust has to inject into things. So if you are watching the tweets come from somebody who you know to be an authentic source and who is very credible and who has a large number of followers, you're going to respond to that very differently than you are from some person who you don't know who or where they're coming from and they're saying something very alarmist. So when I talk about disruption, this is one of the things that I'm talking about.
ROSSYou know, when you read the New York Times, when you read the Washington Post, you can largely assume that there are significant journalistic standards behind the ink that goes on the paper. You can't always assume that from Facebook and from Twitter or other social media. So it actually puts a significant onus, in my opinion, on mainstream media. So that if they are drawing from this stuff, they then need to come up with some pretty smart practices for how they figure out what is real and what is not. Because if they just go chasing down every last tweet, then they run a real risk of communicating information that could patently false.
NNAMDIThey, in that case, being we, in my case.
ROSSI'm talking about you, Kojo.
NNAMDIExactly right. Part of your job title is to think how these tools can help change the way we do diplomacy. But for the last few weeks, most of Washington has been using Twitter and Facebook just to figure out exactly what was happening on the ground. They've become crucial to our sources of information.
ROSSYeah, you know, it's changed the way people behave. You know, if I go more than a -- this is probably a bad thing and I probably need to detox a little bit -- but if I go more than a handful of hours without checking my social media feeds, you know, I'm twitchy, but I'm sure curious about what's going on. And I am interested to see what happens with this over the long term. People are near addicted to some of these social media tools. And in my opinion, it's really just over the last two years, it's over the last 24 months that we've sort of gone past this tipping point, where the use of these tools have so completely saturated our lives.
NNAMDISome people say our support for the open Internet or Internet freedom is incomplete. They point to the fact that or at least the speculation that our national security agencies work with Internet service providers to eavesdrop on our lives. If the NSA, they say, can do it to American citizens, do we really have moral standing to, say, to Iranian authorities that they can't or shouldn't be doing the same thing?
ROSSWell, you know, in this case, I think it's apples and oranges. What we have is, as our fulcrum, is the rule of law. So the extent that there's electronic eavesdropping, it's lawful intercept. We have a law called CALEA that allows for phone companies, for example, to have their records subpoenaed. The key here is a transparent rule of law that allows for appeal and that is fair and unbiased. And that's certainly not the case in Iran. In Iran, they are just spidering out there, looking for descent and punishing descent. So, you know, I think it's downright necessary. And I doubt a single one of the 535 members of Congress would think it's unnecessary for us to not have the ability to lawfully intercept criminal communications. But the key here, again, is rule of law and a transparent legal process.
NNAMDILet me take that a little farther. We got this e-mail from Ross B. in Silver Spring, Md. "I have to point out U.S. hypocrisy both on WikiLeaks and Twitter. At the same time as the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton placed the role of social network such as Twitter in promoting freedom, the U.S. government was seeking in court to invade the privacy of Twitter users." We also have other comments who said that the U.S. seems hypocritical because of this in its pursuit of WikiLeaks. How would you respond?
ROSSSo with WikiLeaks, Hillary Clinton spoke to them very directly. It's important. Internet freedom is not freedom to commit a crime on the Internet. We have a variety of different freedoms and rights. We have the right to bear arms, but the right to bear arms doesn't mean you're allowed to go into a town square and shoot your gun. We have the freedom of expression. Freedom of expression doesn't mean you're allowed to slander or libel somebody.
ROSSAnd we have Internet freedom, but Internet freedom does not mean you're able to transfer child pornography, it doesn't mean you're allowed to commit financial fraud and it doesn't mean you're allowed to traffic in stolen intellectual property. So, again, Internet freedom, all of these rights of ours have to be -- have to account for the rule of law. Internet freedom is not the freedom to commit crime using the Internet.
NNAMDIAnd Secretary Clinton says we need to have a framework for confidentiality within the Web also. But pursuing WikiLeaks, for just one more minute or two, why is what the New York Times did any different than what WikiLeaks did?
ROSSSo I'm going to say my favorite word right now, which is active ongoing Department of Justice investigation. So I'm severely constrained as a member of government. But what I can say -- which is appropriate because political figure should not be speaking out too much on active ongoing investigation. So this is the sound of me punting on a question.
NNAMDIWell, you have 327,000 followers on your Twitter account, a number that puts you in the top three among U.S. government officials. As we said before, only President Obama and Senator John McCain have more Twitter followers than you do. What do you typically post on your Twitter account and who exactly is following you?
ROSSGosh, you know, it's a mixture of things. You know, most of what I post on my account are communications about information that we in the administration are trying to get out to people. You know, there's a little bit of personal information in there. But, you know, it's less so, frankly, just because as many people are following me now, I've got to be concerned, frankly, as a parent of three young children and things like this. So there are some privacy tensions within all of this. So I share some personal information, but most of it is about the job. Most of it is, you know, historic facts that -- I send out a different historic fact every day. So this morning I tweeted out that on this day in 1965, Malcolm X was killed by assassins. So, you know, I'm a history junkie so that's part of what I tweet out.
ROSSIn terms of who the followers are, they're from, you know, over a hundred countries. So what I do when I travel -- and I travel a heck of a lot -- I meet with, you know, young tech execs. I meet with bloggers. I meet with social media influencers. And so a lot of the people who follow all of our tweeter accounts at the State Department. Forget about just me for a moment. Our young people who want to get information from some way other than watching the news and reading the newspaper because in their countries, a lot of the time, the state controls the media. And so they'd rather hear directly from individuals at the State Department.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. We go to Paul in Kensington, Md. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULYes, thanks for the call. I thought the way one answers the question the way you framed it, whether the freedom, Internet freedom, potentially contradicts other things we value depends on which we you're referring to. If the we is the U.S. government and those who defend its national security to (unintelligible) national security and state interest, clearly there's some huge contradictions as others have pointed out. But even during the presentation, while Ray McGovern was standing silently protesting U.S. foreign policy during the speech during which Secretary Clinton was defending freedom, he was sort of beaten up and hauled out of the room and arrested for a silent protest.
PAULBut as far as the lawfulness of how America pursues sort of, you know, freedom of speech on the Internet, I wonder if the spokesperson could address how Bradley Manning is essentially being tortured in prison until he collaborates in the case they're trying to build against WikiLeaks, which essentially was doing exactly the same thing that the Pentagon Papers did. And the Supreme Court said there was information that's in the public domain, there's an overriding public interest...
PAUL...to having people get access to it.
NNAMDIOn Bradley Manning, I guess I'll say for Alec Ross, ongoing federal investigation is the word that he's going to use. On the case of Ray McGovern, that was brought up by several people, including our e-mailer Jeff. But also another e-mail, Ross, who was -- Ray McGovern, of course, was a protester, a silent protester at the George Washington University speech delivered by Secretary Clinton. Video showed him being escorted out or, in the eyes of some, being brutally roughed up.
ROSSYeah. So he was a handful of rows away from me and he wasn't silent. You know, Hillary Clinton was trying to give a speech and he was yelling. So, look, you know, he was a guest. And if you're going to stand there and, you know, make a lot of noise -- this is the secretary of state that's trying to give a speech. Then, you know, you're probably going to be an unwelcomed guest. I will say that, you know, I didn't see him being roughed up. I mean, I didn't see it until the end there. But, you know, that was -- my point of view was that cops did exactly what they ought to do. It's their job.
NNAMDIPaul, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Daniel in Rockville, Md. Daniel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANIELWell, thank you. I have one comment. I wonder how much these revolutions are due to the new technology versus the oldest thing of all, which is food and the fact that we see the commodity and the grain prices especially have shot to the roof. And that must really cause increased suffering in all of these countries. That may be the root cause of all, I wonder.
ROSSSo if you go to Tunisia, I think -- you know, Daniel, I think you make a pretty good point. If you look at Tunisia, there were a handful of things that significantly contributed to the revolution there, one of which was severely escalating food prices, another was significant concerns about corruption, and another was dismay with the Ben Ali ruling family. So going back to the point that I was making earlier in the show, these are people-based revolutions. You know, I just don't buy the whole Facebook revolution, Twitter revolution, technology revolution meme. That said, again, I think that the technology tools were wildly powerful as accelerants making weak ties strong and distributing leadership. But you aren't just giving people cell phones or giving them Facebook accounts and suddenly they want to take up arms. There's got to be something behind it.
NNAMDII'd like to hear what you think about this, 800-433-8850. Do you think there is such a thing really as a Twitter revolution or a Facebook revolution? 800-433-8850. In other words, simply because people now have the means to communicate more rapidly and effectively that that, in and of itself, is a cause for these revolutions to be taking place. 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Here is CJ in Cumberland, Md. CJ, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CJHi. So I have a comment on something that the gentleman said that Net neutrality is on the verge of being connected to the issue of the freedom on the Internet. I disagree. I think that the way the technology is, you know, implied in the Net neutrality is the ability of the owners of the Internet, for the (unintelligible) government to control the sources and the (unintelligible) for the traffic. So if we build the Internet based on the assumption that the owners of the Internet has the control over the traffic, I mean, essentially they take away the freedom or at least building a foundation for taking away this freedom in every way that the owners of the Internet would wish. So I think it's very intimately connected. I think the Internet as it is right now is so successful because there is no control. I mean, we have to prosecute the crimes that happens with the use of the Internet, but that does not imply that we need to have the control itself.
ROSSYeah. So, you know, I think you make a perfectly fair point. As a practical matter, though, in terms of how Net neutrality has been handled, as a matter of public policy, it's really -- most of its attention is being given as a domestic regulatory issue. So the State Department, frankly, hasn't interacted much with the FCC on how it views carriage issues over domestic telecommunications pipes. It's a fair point that you make. It's certainly the case that if we're going to have free and open networks, that providers can't filter out things like peaceful political expression and such things. So there's a link there. But as a practical matter, just when sort of when I go to work in the morning and when I work on Internet freedom issues, the Net neutrality issue has largely been a domestic one.
NNAMDIAnd I'm glad you said domestic pipelines there because a lot of people don't understand how Internet service is provided in some other countries in the world and assume it's the way it is here. Many countries in the Middle East allow partial access to the Internet. But in the most recent speech, Secretary Clinton insisted that it's impossible to truly segregate the Internet to have free commerce, free mobile connections and free social networking without it veering into the political discussion. But we've seen some countries like China and Iran adapting to new technology by effectively doubling down by using that technology to spy on people, like you mentioned earlier, in the case of Iran. What do you do about that?
ROSSSo this is what Hillary Clinton called the dictator's dilemma. And boy she was blunt about this. I thought what she said was absolutely spectacular. She said, look folks, you cannot have a social Internet, and economic Internet, or a political Internet and pick and choose the one you want and say goodbye to the one that you don't want. It's all one Internet, Hillary Clinton said. And a point that she made is, you know, look, you might be able to get away with this for a little while, but you will lose over the long term.
ROSSYou know, these information networks of ours are increasing ubiquitous. They're increasingly powerful. And young people world around are becoming more sophisticated consumers of information. So she called it the dictator's dilemma, and I couldn't agree with her more. If you look at a country like Syria for example, that two weeks ago said, all right, for the first time in three years you can have YouTube and Facebook, but as soon as they did that they sentenced a 19-year-old young woman blogger to five years in prison. You know, that is--that's just wrong, and it's gonna catch up with you at some point.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on Internet Freedom and U.S. Diplomacy with Alec Ross, senior advisor on innovation to secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you see tension between promoting Internet freedom and other values we hold dear? 800-433-8850, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Alec Ross, senior advisor on innovation to secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. His job description covers Internet freedom, social media, and other technology issues. What raises an interesting question, Alec, what about American businesses that invest in countries with closed Internet policies selling sophisticated technology to repressive regimes to more effectively monitor or stifle the use of technology by democracy activists. That poses a foreign policy dilemma for our ambassadors, does it not?
ROSSYou know, well, and that's why we have sanctions. People say well, why do you have sanctions? That's why we have sanctions. So you know what, we disallow the sale of some of these networks to countries like Syria or Iran, countries that we think will make ill use of it. I do think that it's important to be a little clear-eyed about this though. Because yes, we are restricting the ability of American companies to sell to these countries, but they can still buy it. Instead of looking west, they look east, and they buy it from Chinese companies.
ROSSSo while I think it's important for us to take a principled stand and to disallow certain of these sales, it's also important to be clear-eyed and say, you know what, they're gonna get it, and they're just gonna get it from Chinese companies.
NNAMDIOn to Nasser in Washington D.C. Nasser, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NASSERYes. Thank you for taking my call. Basically I see some difficulties with the U.S. use of promote -- or rather, the promotion of freedom using social networking tools in other countries, and also they are, you know, some governments -- weaker governments that are paranoid about the U.S. using these sorts of tools to subvert them and to sort of encourage uprising and things like that.
NASSERSo how do we deal with basically, you know, other governments having legitimate claims that maybe are intelligence services are using these tools against them?
ROSSYeah. So I think that two important words you said that I want to flag are encourage uprising. It's very important to understand that the Internet freedom agenda is not a regime change agenda. So, you know, the -- a lot of people conflate the Bush freedom agenda and secretary of state Hillary Clinton's Internet freedom agency, and they're really two different things.
ROSSOur Internet freedom agenda is really about taking those centuries old values about the freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of association, and the freedom of the press, and pushing for that all around the world. Now, if you do have freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of the press, that then lends itself in many cases to dissent. But it's not deterministic. It's not, oh, here's Facebook, oh, here's Twitter, oh, here's, you know, Microsoft -- Microsoft Office, go make revolution.
ROSSAs much as it's in the news right now how technology is being used to exercise dissent, I think it's also important to recognize that more often than not, the way these tools are being used is for communication, commerce, and such things like that. So a lot of our focus, frankly, is to keep it as an open platform for communication, commerce and collaboration, independent of political things.
NNAMDIBut what do you do when keeping it as an open platform invites the suspicion -- well, the U.S. is also investing in a variety of tools and strategies that can help dissidents to access the web and to evade censors in places like Iran, which secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned that there is no silver bullet, no single tool, no killer app, instead investing in a lot of different tools. But there are regimes that according to somebody like Nasser's call, interpret that as the U.S. trying to undermine my government.
ROSSWell, you know, what, we are absolutely unapologetic about being in favor of the freedom of expression, the freedom of assemble, and the freedom of the press. We've never apologized for it in the past, and we're not gonna apologize for it in the future. And as a practical matter, in the year 2011, if you don't advocate for these over digital media, then you're irrelevant. So this is really a test of American values, and a test of American leadership.
ROSSIf we are gonna respect, as Thomas Jefferson said, that the only legitimate foundation for government is the will of its people, and to prevent its free expression should be our first object. If we are going to having now our 67th secretary of state meet the principles articulated by that first secretary of state, then we've got to push forward over the Internet. Because as a practical matter, that's where this communication is taking place today.
NNAMDINasser, thank you for your call. On to Stephanie in Landover, Md. Stephanie, your turn.
STEPHANIEHi, how are you today?
STEPHANIEI have a question, the (unintelligible) Act, you know, restricts government employees from participation in -- participating in bipartisan politics.
NNAMDIOr in partisan politics.
STEPHANIEDoes that -- right. It had a recent finding on social media that said that I can't, even for my own home computer, cannot express anything on the Facebook, but I can't -- I also cannot be a friend to someone who expresses a political opinion. I can't link to or friend somebody like, I mean, and organization like -- organization organizing for America. That's a huge restriction just because the implementation if I don't -- you know, what if I have 50 friends or 100 friends, or -- so now I own everybody I link to. So I'd like to know how the United States government...
NNAMDIThat of course is domestic policy, but it does point to some of the complexity that we're dealing with here. If Stephanie happens to be a federal employee, and everything that she says is correct, how can we make the argument that people in other countries should be able to have freedom on the Internet when, according to Stephanie, even at home she doesn't have freedom of the Internet?
ROSSSo I think the key is that it's -- I don't believe that's true at home. So it's really about 9:00 to 5:00. When I'm at the State Department, I can't -- and frankly, I shouldn't be able to do any politicking, anything electoral. But I do have the right to go home at night at ten o'clock when I'm not doing my job and, you know, as Stephanie said, you know, friend a politician. So it's really all about what you do on the job as it relates to social media. So you know what, when you're at your desk at work you shouldn't be politicking over social media or otherwise.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We got a posting on our website from Housewren who says, "I don't think you don't give enough credit to Al-Jazeera. It was not Facebook or Twitter contacts that propelled the revolution in Egypt. Rather it was the compelling images from Al-Jazeera that brought more and more angry people on to the street with the idea that this might work. It turns out that the revolution can not only be televised but even propelled by television. Compared to Al-Jazeera, the communications role of Facebook and Twitter were minor in these uprisings." Well, I don't know who's counting credits here.
ROSSYeah. So it's interesting. Let's go to -- I'll speak quickly about Tunisia and Egypt as well. In Tunisia, Al-Jazeera and France 24, the way that they actually got the information to report was through social media. They didn't have a big footprint in Tunisia. And so it was actually outside the eyes of satellite television, much of the early dissent. You know, things were happening over the Sidi Bouzid hashtag and what have you.
ROSSAnd mainstream media then picked up on it. Mainstream media is not irrelevant. It helps inform and it's a major part of the information environment. In Egypt, Al-Jazeera played a very important role, but what it didn't do is it didn't play a role as an organizing instrument. So if you look at what that Google executive that Kojo mentioned (unintelligible) , the actual communication between activists, the actual sharing of information about where the police is, what corners to avoid, you know, the actual hatching of old school plans and organizing, that can't be done over satellite -- over satellite television stations like France 24 or Al-Jazeera. But it could be done and it was done over social media. So it's important to understand the specific role that satellite TV played.
NNAMDIOne country that does seem to be confronting a possible Internet problem is Syria. Syria recently lifted its ban on Facebook and YouTube.
ROSSYeah. So I was in Syria a little less than a year ago, and it's a really interesting country. It's very young. The population's gonna double in 19 years and the young people there want to be better off financially than their parents and they want to connect and engage more broadly than their parents were able to. And so I think there's a real tension between the young people in Syria and the Baathist leaders who have been in power for 40 years.
ROSSNow, I think Al-Asad may have blinked a little in letting his citizens access YouTube and Facebook and what have you. But here's my concern. People don't have the freedom of expression, and the freedom of assembly. So yes, people can use Facebook, but if a security service is monitoring what a young Syrian is doing on Facebook, then it puts them at risk. So this is, again, a case where I'm not, you know, utopian about these things. Do I think people ought to be able to access these tools? Absolutely.
ROSSBut you know what, if you're accessing them in Syria, until the regime does more to put a basic foundation of human rights in place, you've got to understand the risks and there are risks.
NNAMDIHere is Esa in Baltimore, Md. Esa, your turn. Go ahead, please.
ESAYes. We have a problem with only authenticating information that serves American interests. Right now jets are bombing protestors in Libya, and since it's not a basically a facelift to an old dictator and bringing in a new (word?) like Egypt, nobody's covering it.
NNAMDIActually, there's a media blackout.
ESAYes, exactly. And why is the U.S. allowing that when we had people in Tahrir Square from CNN and ABC? Why don't we have correspondents in Tripoli right now?
ROSSSo I think the whole, you know, allowing it, you know, I don't think we have a magic wand here in Washington D.C. You know, two days ago, the administration spoke out loudly about its grave concerns about the use of violence against peaceful protestors. You know, we said about Libya, as we have about countries throughout the Middle East, that they ought not blackout their communications networks. But we don't have a magic button in Washington that's gonna turn the cell phone networks, and is gonna turn the TV networks back on in Tripoli.
ROSSYou know, if we did, I don't know if we'd push it or not. Maybe we would, but we don't. So it's a -- it's sort of moot, so...
NNAMDIAnd that's the problem with finding out what's going on in Tripoli right now. There is in fact a media blackout. The government's view of technology has usually been that if it needs something it will build it itself. But when we're talking about diplomacy over Twitter and Facebook, we're talking about the government adapting its message to what is essentially a private medium or private media.
ROSSThat's right, you know. The world is changing, and it's changing not necessarily because of government programs. So government has a choice. Either they can, as Hillary Clinton said on Christiane Amanpour over the weekend, either we can get in the mix, or we can be irrelevant. So I think it's important for us to get in the mix and use these tools, and you know what, tip our hats a little bit to the American entrepreneurs who are building these tools that are being increasingly used the world around, and in places where it isn't American tools, like Maktoob in Jordan, or Mixi in Japan.
ROSSYou know, we -- we need to use local tools there. But the challenge for us is either get in the mix or be irrelevant.
NNAMDIAnd Esa, thank you very much for your call. I know that you have been across your career thinking a lot about international development. A lot of development countries are confronting decidedly non-high tech challenges. Do you think any of these technologies have practical uses for countries say like Haiti where we were last year?
ROSSI hope so. You know, in thinking about Haiti for example, it's gonna be very hard to build sort of an old-fashioned mainstream banking infrastructure in Haiti. But mobile banking, an innovation that has its roots in Kenya, might be a great way of bringing mainstream access to financial services. If you think about education, in places where people don't have enough money to build a school or buy expensive text books, but everybody have a cell phone, it might be interesting to see what the opportunities are to deliver educational content.
ROSSSo my goodness, I hope that these tools are able to be used for educational and economical empowerment.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time, but since as I mentioned earlier, this has not been created by the government, the government is depending on private media, how challenging is it to try to not simply stay ahead, but to keep up with the curve?
ROSSYou know, this is a case where part of what Hillary Clinton did was so smart, and so created a whole (word?) of sort of digital diplomats, and it's our job -- and it's our job to try and keep up, and to try to help the State Department keep up. Unfortunately, sometimes the world moves faster than, you know, traditional diplomacy likes, but we have to do our very best to keep up and that's part of -- part of this is empowering digital natives.
NNAMDIThat's the challenge. Alec Ross is a senior advisor on innovation to the secretary of state Hillary Clinton. His job description covering Internet freedom, social media and other technology issues. He is, as I said, the third most followed American government official in the Twittersphere behind President Obama and Senator John McCain. Alec, good to see you again.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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