The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.
The effort includes secretive projects to create independent cellphone networks inside foreign countries, as well as one operation out of a spy novel in a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington, where a group of young entrepreneurs who look as if they could be in a garage band are fitting deceptively innocent-looking hardware into a prototype “Internet in a suitcase.”
The Obama administration’s initiative is in one sense a new front in a longstanding diplomatic push to defend free speech and nurture democracy. For decades, the United States has sent radio broadcasts into autocratic countries through Voice of America and other means. More recently, Washington has supported the development of software that preserves the anonymity of users in places like China, and training for citizens who want to pass information along the government-owned Internet without getting caught.
The new initiatives have found a champion in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose department is spearheading the American effort. “We see more and more people around the globe using the Internet, mobile phones and other technologies to make their voices heard as they protest against injustice and seek to realize their aspirations,” Mrs. Clinton said in an e-mail response to a query on the topic. “There is a historic opportunity to effect positive change, change America supports,” she said. “So we’re focused on helping them do that, on helping them talk to each other, to their communities, to their governments and to the world.”
Mrs. Clinton has made Internet freedom into a signature cause. But the State Department has carefully framed its support as promoting free speech and human rights for their own sake, not as a policy aimed at destabilizing autocratic governments.
That distinction is difficult to maintain, said Clay Shirky, an assistant professor at New York University who studies the Internet and social media. “You can’t say, ‘All we want is for people to speak their minds, not bring down autocratic regimes’ — they’re the same thing,” Mr. Shirky said.
He added that the United States could expose itself to charges of hypocrisy if the State Department maintained its support, tacit or otherwise, for autocratic governments running countries like Saudi Arabia or Bahrain while deploying technology that was likely to undermine them.
Well, there is that, what Mr. Shirky said. We are still BFFs with both. One has oil, the other a deep port that we rather like. Which doesn’t look good, does it?
But it’s not just the BFFs that bothers me. The State Department has been known to muzzle its Foreign Service bloggers, diplomats and spouses, in various different ways. It had already driven an FS blogger to “sail into the sunset” (shaky current assignment, no forward assignment, etc, etc.). It has caused the shutdown of several blogs and continues to threaten its diplomats and their spouses who blog or tweet about stuff outside the chalked lines with all sorts of punishments. Always behind closed doors, of course, and in almost non-existent paper trail. These FS bloggers write on their own free time, not on taxpayers’ dime, write that down please.
If you hear very little about this, it’s because the shutdown also comes with a non-disclosure agreement; if the blogger squeaks, they can send you to a mission in the Arctic region, or they send the employee, then the offending spouse blogger dines with guilt every single day afterwards.
Frankly, with the staffing gaps out there, and the difficulties facing the United States at home and abroad, I have no idea where the State Department could find the people for its new media police force to monitor its personnel.
I call this high hypocrisy of a distinct variety because State is trotting around like Captain No Underpants. Internet freedom for all except for those whose opinions we don’t like, even if they’re exercising those rights in their private capacity? It seems only appropriate to point this out under the bright light of day and not during lunar eclipse, because who the heck can see anyone in the dark, dammit?
Secretary Clinton in NYT: “There is a historic opportunity to effect positive change, change America supports,” she said. “So we’re focused on helping them do that, on helping them talk to each other, to their communities, to their governments and to the world.”
Ah, a historic opportunity, given three, four, five ongoing wars and a bleeding red budget — but not if you are a diplomat within the State Department.
Around the same time, DipNote has a piece on Blogging for Political and Social Change:
“Daniel Baer connected the State Department’s work on Internet freedom promotion with the work of the bloggers and discussed emerging challenges to online free expression in their countries. When asked by one blogger about what she can do, Baer replied “Keep being you.” He went on to describe the State Department’s diplomatic efforts to expand online free expression in a number of countries.”
But… but … if FS bloggers follow his advice to “keep being you” bad things happen! See — first the tigers growl at you, and if you are not scared, the tigers threaten to eat your lunch, your spouse, your next boss, whatever, and if you still are not scared because … I don’t know why tigers don’t scare you … they eat you all up and burp, and no one would even hear about it.
Why do I think this is problematic? Becaaause … silly, we do not/not want foreign tigers eating foreign bloggers we are helping to growl freely.
Of course, if we are the tigers, that is absolutely okay….
Then yesterday, possibly in response to that NYT piece, although they said it’s not, the State Department trots out Senior State Department Officials to give a background briefing on 21st Century Statecraft and its Internet Freedom Programs.
And I simply adore the briefing and all $70 million taxpayers’ money we spent, who wouldn’t?
I learned quite a bit from these seniors from the State Department, see some quotable quotes below which simply impresses the pants off me and my buddies:
Governments that are respecting the rights of their peoples have nothing to fear in free speech
PSST! Substitute “governments” with “organizations” and let’s add “except in the State Department” after the word “speech”. See, it should now read:
Organizations that are respecting the rights of their peoples have nothing to fear in free speech – except in the State Department.
“Governments that are respecting universal human rights have no reason to fear a free internet.”
HAR. HAR. HAR.
“The advent of these modern communications technologies means that nothing can be swept under the rug anymore.”
Oh, dear god, where are these people coming from?
“… being the roadside assistance on the info superhighway in a place where there are a lot of threats …”
Heck, folks who did not want roadside assistance got it anyway, for their own good, for sure. In the State Department.
“We are guided by the principle – the universal principles of human rights, and that people should have the right to come together to associate around a cause, that people should be able to peacefully demonstrate, that people should be able to speak their mind and it’s not about dictating what’s on their mind, but about a universal right to speak one’s mind.”
To speak one’s mind … remember that…
“One of the threats that we’ve seen most recently, particularly in the Middle East, is shutdowns. And so this is kind of a – the – what you read about in the Times, one of – is one piece of the portfolio among many, and it’s kind of a backup battery for when the shutdown occurs.”
Um, if you work at State, please don’t bother asking for a back up battery; it’ll remind somebody of the shutdown switch.
“Our goal is to make sure that we are doing what we can to amplify the voices and create the space for free expression and freedom of association and assembly online regardless of who the group is”
If you’re an FS blogger who blogs on your personal time, git into that space for free expression ASAP before it runs out.
“Technology itself is neither good nor bad, and the whole – the big picture of this problem is about the fact that it can be used to exercise rights or it can be used to limit rights”
Sounds about right …. in the State Department.
“This is – again, it’s not a one-size-fit-all solution, and there are a number of pieces to the puzzle. So [Senior State Department Official Two] talked about, one of the things about the training sessions – and we’ve trained over 5,000 activists around the world — one of the things about these training sessions is that they end up being what I would call kind of these underground railroads to distribute not only technology, but also know-how.”
Underground railroads, so adorable in the State Department. But see, if you preach it but you don’t practice it …
Hypocrisy, please meet the U.S. Department of State. Don’t need to hold hands but a cheek-to-cheek kiss is in order.