“We should err on the side of openness.” – not a common kind of statement to hear from a government official, especially not one in charge of diplomacy. And yet, this statement, made by Secretary Hilary Clinton in response to a question asked following her remarks on internet freedom in January of this year, seems to underlie the state department’s current approach to digital diplomacy. Or, as they have termed it, 21st century statecraft.
During the talk he gave our class, Alec Ross, Secretary Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation, shared his view that what divides countries in the 21st century will be open vs. closed societies. He presented an array of historical examples illustrating the contrast between the progress of open, tolerant societies and the stagnation of closed societies. Clearly, he too believes on erring on the side of openness.
I think this is a pretty refreshing perspective (especially from government officials) – one of the main themes of our class has been the incredible benefits of “openness”, whether it be Wikipedia, open source software building, or other forms of collective action. If our foreign policy experts and diplomats can encourage openness globally, and take advantage of openness themselves, I think they can truly advance statecraft.
Ross and Jared Cohen (another member of the state department team and one of the principle architects of 21st century statecraft, now at Google) stress “the potential for mobile phones to become widespread public tools for education, banking and election monitoring”, according to a July 2010 New York Times Magazine article – one example of the incredible promise of digital diplomacy.
That said, I think there are major, valid criticisms of the Secretary Clinton, Ross, and co.’s approach that have come up through our readings.
First – the role of the internet and technology in diplomacy and foreign policy (or anything else for that matter) can definitely be overstated. And although I don’t think state department officials are looking to these tools as a cure-all, their enthusiastic pursuit of digital diplomacy and 21st century statecraft can sometimes appear to be just that – pursuit of a magic bullet to solve an array of problems (including “telemedicine, tele-education, and something called telejustice (the details of which [Ross and Cohen at the State Department] haven’t quite worked out yet)”).
Hamid Tehrani, the Persian editor of the blogging network Global Voices, who I mentioned in the last post as well, says “The west was focused not on the Iranian people but on the role of western technology” during last year’s post-election protests in Iran. This highlights two problems – one, the aforementioned overstating of the role of technology, and two, the concern over western technology. Indeed, the state department being buddy-buddy with Google, Facebook, and Twitter has raised concerns – both abroad, because people are suspicious of these U.S.-based companies, and globally (including domestically), because people are suspicious of Google and Facebook. Morozov highlights privacy battles and ethical concerns around Facebook and Twitter’s refusal to join the Global Network Initiative, but I think Eli Pariser’s “filter bubble” concerns (mentioned in my last post) are also worth raising here.
If all the pent up concerns – and oftentimes, anger – about the actions of Google, Facebook, and Twitter (including the filter bubble, privacy concerns, etc.) explode at some point, with a huge public outcry, will the state department – and our foreign policy and diplomacy efforts – suffer as a result? While I agree with Secretary Clinton and Ross that openness is the way to go, with benefits outweighing costs, as far as their collaboration with the aforementioned companies, I hope they are being very, very careful.
I think the state department has to work with the companies at the forefront of these new tools and technologies, but I hope they are giving everyone (all companies, everywhere in the world) an equal chance to get involved – to promote internet freedom for individuals globally while favoring some companies over others would be rather hypocritical, don’t you think?
(Also worth considering, how concerned should these companies be about starting to look like arms of government? If these companies are seen as US-biased, what does it mean for them globally? I wonder if they are having these conversations in the Googleplex and elsewhere!)