After reading Fergus Hanson’s article in Foreign Policy, I have mixed feelings on the State Department’s campaign to use social networking and the Internet as a possible way of “subtly undermining repressive regimes.” While it is great that social networking is being embraced, I am not sure if this is exactly the way to do it. This is especially the case when it is being used in countries that we are supposed to have a partnership with. It seems to me that undermining the regime may be undermining the partnership as well. On the other hand, social media is a very powerful tool and a way to avoid using force by giving empowerment to a country’s citizens. It helps build civil society and give like-minded people the tools they need to work towards government change and promote democracy. It is a very fine line between using social media as empowerment and over-stepping your ground and risking your diplomatic relationship with the country.
Internet freedom is something that is lauded in our country, but in the regimes that the U.S. is using these new tactics in, this freedom could have very high costs. An empowered citizen, aided by U.S. Government tools, could be caught and prosecuted or even killed. While the United States is using the Internet as democracy promotion, it could turn into what Evgeny Morozov concludes: Internet freedom will lead to countries imposing more and more restrictions and thus making citizens worse off. This is not the goal of the State Department’s efforts and it would be highly unfortunate to see something that is intended to be positive go in the opposite direction.
Projects like the Open Technology Initiative and InTheClear are two very positive initiatives that have some great future possibilities. OTI, by the New America Foundation, allows people to maintain communication when the Internet is under government shut down, and InTheClear allows people to erase data from their phones if necessary. These projects can help those against a repressive regime in times of crisis and seem to be less tied to country partnerships and possibly makes citizens less vulnerable to attack.
In the end, the direction of the initiative is positive because it takes into account the realities that activists are moving online and that the Internet is a cost-effective mechanism for giving access to those who lack it, but it still raises questions about the legality of it all, the potential for diplomatic consequences, and the true impact it is going to have on citizens and their repressive regimes.