For decades, U.S. diplomacy was conducted behind closed doors along the corridors of power. That was before Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and Alec Ross, senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Over the past two years, Ross, 39, has been incorporating those digital platforms into the daily lives of U.S. diplomats. Dozens of U.S. ambassadors around the world now use Facebook and Twitter, and the State Department boasts nine foreign-language Twitter accounts. These technologies, Ross argues, give the U.S. a new suite of tools for exerting "smart power" to advance its interests.
Ross's effort is a key component of Clinton's 21st century statecraft agenda, which aims to harness communications technology and information networks to address the U.S.'s grand challenges on the international stage: aiding democratic movements, providing disaster relief and alleviating poverty. State Department officials used mobile text-message programs to raise money and coordinate aid following Haiti's devastating earthquake. They've joined with Mexican officials to set up an anonymous mobile-phone-based tip line in Juárez, a city ravaged by drug violence. They've worked to build an online map of land mines in Colombia. And they're exploring ways to help bring mobile payment systems to famine-stricken East Africa.
Nowhere has the rise of digital networks been more dramatic than in the Middle East, where they played a crucial role in helping Arab Spring protesters speak out against and ultimately topple dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. It's no surprise that autocratic regimes in countries like Egypt, Syria and China and most recently Libya have attempted to stifle communication by shutting down the Internet entirely.
Clinton has publicly condemned such efforts and earlier this year announced a $30 million initiative to "support digital activists and push back against Internet repression wherever it occurs." Ross declines to give details of the program but says, "We support technologies and train activists so they can exercise their universal rights, including freedom of expression."
The agenda hasn't been greeted warmly by all players on the international stage. "There have been strongly negative reactions from Belarus, Iran and China and other nations that are not as open as our own," says Ross. With over 400 million Internet users, China in particular faces a massive challenge in controlling online information. "The Chinese are grappling with the implications of a networked citizenry," Ross says. "Ultimately, the future of the Internet in China will be determined by citizens under 25 who are growing up digitally." Last year, Clinton provoked anger from China when she urged U.S. companies to join Google in resisting Chinese Web censorship.
The sinister use of technology by authoritarian regimes has prompted criticism of Ross and his colleagues' faith in the democratizing power of technology. "This is religion, not social science," says Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. He argues that the Internet is becoming less and less open as entrenched players, including states and corporations, move to protect their interests. "My main criticism of the State Department is that their naive embrace of Internet freedom is just not realistic," he says. "As noble as this effort is, they are fighting an unwinnable fight."
Ross insists he doesn't take a utopian view of the power of information networks. "Technology takes on the values and intentions of its users," he says. "Governments that try to use these networks to control their people are ultimately swimming against the tide of history." And therein lies the crux of Ross's position: technology is just a tool, for good or ill. It's up to people to decide how to use it.