Have 250,000 leaks sunk the State Department’s ‘Internet Freedom’ policy?
by Roy Revie
As the fallout of Cablegate continues to consume column inches, gigabytes, and cabinet meetings across the world, the realisation that this is about more than one man, one organization, and one massive leak seems to be slowly sinking in. While some argue that stories and comment focusing on the process of the leak and the fallout for the organisation only distract from the stories contained within the cables themselves, it is clear that this element is as vital (in the short term at least) as the contents of the cables. We find ourselves in the middle of an unprecedented public debate on Internet freedom and the role of the state online. In this debate much has been written about the motives and background of Wikileaks (some bad, some excellent) while other parties involved have avoided the same scrutiny. Of particular interest in the current discussion is the role of the State Department which under Hillary Clinton’s leadership has played an important and contradictory role in the debate on Internet freedom.
Back in more innocent times, in January of this year, Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the Newseum (a 250,000-square foot monument to media complacency) in which she introduced the concept of “21st Century Statecraft” – a term referring to the recent State Department push for the use of social and new media for diplomatic and geopolitical ends. In this speech she affirmed the US’s commitment to the “principles of internet freedom”, a new Human Right for the 21st Century. Clinton waxed lyrical about the ethical, financial, political and practical reasons why freedom of access and use of the internet should be considered an absolute right – noting that America “stand[s] for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas”. The State Department, it seemed, was committed to a comprehensive and open approach to online freedom and engagement, a new stance for a government which had hitherto tended towards a more iterative approach to interaction with the modern world.
Perhaps ominously, the speech was prefaced by a shout-out to Joe Lieberman for aiding the “passage of the VOICE Act, which speaks to Congress’s and the American people’s commitment to internet freedom, a commitment that crosses party lines and branches of government”. The VOICE Act is the ‘Victims of Iranian Censorship Act’ which authorizes the funding of US propaganda channels in Iran as well as support for circumvention and other anti-censorship tools. The Act unequivocally “condemns acts of censorship, intimidation, and other restrictions on freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression in Iran and throughout the world” as well as companies who aid such activities. Lieberman is now at the reactionary forefront of those calling for anti-Wikileaks legislation. More innocent times indeed.
Clinton began 2010 impressed that “even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable”, she ends it dealing with a diplomatic crisis (idiotically framed as “embarrassing” by most of the media) and presiding over a government backed attack on Wikileaks – a group which has become the symbol of internet freedom and government scrutiny and has consciously put itself on collision course with US power. With naive deference some have pointed to America’s ‘freedom’ as it’s exposed flank; its ‘openness’ the Achilles’ heel; its vulnerability the cost of righteousness – yet the assault on its diplomatic, military and political elites have exposed something else; an almost unbelievably obdurate self-righteousness, and a huge accountability deficit which has, thus far, remained unchanged. The difficulties to power presented by Cablegate have exposed a number of inconsistencies in the State Department’s approach to net freedom, leaving it at times looking slightly ridiculous. Internet freedom is of course a complex field, and it would not be the first time that the complexity of reality has exposed government rhetoric. Nor would it be the first time that American ‘freedom talk’ was shown to be hypocrisy, but an analysis of some of these inconsistencies aids understanding of the State Department’s contradictory position in the Internet freedom debate.
In her speech Clinton worried that “technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights”. Her allusion was, no doubt, to Iran and China – yet this is exactly what we have seen happen in the US post-Cablegate. The Government has used its connections in the IT Industry (excellently interrogated by Evgeny Morozov) to hound Wikileaks off the internet in a kind of dystopian game of musical chairs. The political establishment has collaborated with digital proxies to carry out the task of censorship – while also prohibiting access to information available in the mainstream media information to its own staff. Clinton’s speech mentioned the US support for the development of circumvention technologies, one strand of the US’s cyber-diplomacy which facilitates access to content prohibited by national or regional firewalls. However, a recent study by leading internet freedom researchers (OpenNet Innitiative) argues that a new form of “intermediary censorship” (through the proxies of site specific policy, commercial constraints, indirect legislation, etc.) is actually a more effective and dangerous trend in control over online content – noting in particular the power of certain online service providers (domain hosts, social media companies, search engines, etc.) to perform this role. What we have seen in the last few days is the power of these intermediaries who, galvanized by the stance of the US Government, have made it very difficult for Wikileaks to maintain an online presence – and are even moving towards choking their funding. (see this and this for an analysis of Wikileaks censorship )
One example Clinton gave of the utility of internet freedom is enlightening:
Let’s say I want to create a mobile phone application that would allow people to rate government ministries, including ours, on their responsiveness and efficiency and also to ferret out and report corruption.
Of course to rate the ministries you would need access to the relevant information, and this is the exact task which Wikileaks performs. A pattern is recognisable in the analysis: the US supports internet freedom as long as it suits their interests, as long as corruption or oppression is elsewhere, and preferably in Venezuela or Iran. Indeed, the online engagement rhetoric of the State Department – of ‘freedom’ as both an end and a means to a better world – is suggestive of an earlier age. The Cold War of ideas had Radio Free Europe and the Congress for Cultural Freedom as vessels for US interests abroad in the guise of freedom, and the State Department is pushing an updated version under the guise of 21st Century Statecraft.
The best example of this is the Alliance for Youth Movements (www.movements.org), an online new media support group and hub for digital activism. The AYM’s website is a shiny and accessible gateway to US-approved digital activism, its exactly what you imagine would happen if you let a gaggle of new media upstarts take control of US foreign policy. It is funded by the US State Department and web giants including Google, Howcast, Facebook and MSNBC. The Alliance links to a number of campaign groups, and its overt role is confined to networking, advocacy and facilitating cooperation between groups. They also produce a database of ‘How To’ guides for digital activism and maintain a significant blog and Twitter presence. The annual conferences of the AYM bring together activist groups, political and business leaders – for example their London 2010 Summit saw activists for Ushahidi, the Save Darfur Coalition and the One Voice Movement mingle with representatives of the State Department, UK Home Office, World Bank and those of YouTube, CBS News, WPP. While playing a seemingly innocuous role the AYM is vital as a meeting place for activist groups which the US would like to work, internet powerbrokers, and government – all arranged in a babble of web 2.0 cool, facilitated by experts in podcasts, flashmobs, memes, and twitterstorms.
The AYM is co-founded by Jared Cohen, a cyber-true believer who has recently moved from the State Department (where he advised on “the Middle East, South Asia, counter-terrorism, counter-radicalization, and the development of the ’21st century statecraft’ agenda”) to a newly created post as Director of Google Ideas -which aims “to re-frame and act on old challenges in new and innovative ways” (vague doesn’t quite cover it). Cohen was the State Department official who famously asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to keep Twitter online during the protests after the 2009 Iranian election, as well as the man responsible for running delegations of technology executives (including Google CEO Eric Shmidt) to ‘troubleshoot Iraq’. (The revolving door between Foggy Bottom and the top Internet companies is another complex part of this story, explored here by Morozov)
The AYM is the most visible element of an important progressive movement in the State Department to harness internet culture for foreign policy goals – and should be seen alongside other initiatives such as USAID ‘New Media Development and Internet Freedom’ scholarships, the Virtual Student Foreign Service and State Department funding of the Berkman School of Liberation Technology. Along with Cohen, the most visible player in this area at the State Department’s is Alec Ross – Senior Advisor on Innovation to Hillary Clinton. Ross is an influential Internet guru (described along with Cohen by the Google CEO as ‘our representatives in the State Department’) who worked on technology policy for the Obama campaign and organised influential advisors from across the technology industry and academia to work with the administration on what would eventually become the ‘internet freedom‘ strain of ’21st Century Statecraft’.
Both Ross and Cohen have been very vocal and visible in net freedom debates, consistently proselytizing for the State Department on the virtues of ‘21st Century Statecraft’ – yet they have been uncharacteristically silent on Cablegate. Ross’s only public comments on Wikileaks were links to what Clinton had to say, while Cohen would only re-tweet PJ Crowley’s dubious criticism of Assange. Telling though, both were on the move, working within what has become a global network of tech start-ups, youth movements and conferences, where the power of web 2.0 is explored and expounded as a tool for both development and democratization (In the last 2 months for example there has been the Latin America Personal Democracy Forum, and the Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes conference). Ross was in Jakarta enthusing about the US Embassy’s huge facebook campaign, meeting tech executives, and attending the Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit. Cohen was in Kenya, presumably at Google’s operation there, exploring the opportunities of Somali mobile phone use and telephone banking. While the freedoms which these experts extoll worldwide are being questioned at home, they are silent on the issue, meanwhile the 21st Century Statecraft project continues unperturbed.
Of course, we shouldn’t expect employees and affiliates of the State Department to criticize their bosses or the ideological inconsistency of their policies. Neither should we be surprised to learn that the State Department are employing the brightest and the best to find out how to exploit new online economic and political opportunities. What we are seeing though is the inconsistencies in the 21st Century Statecraft paradigm being teased out and challenged. While the State Department extolls the virtues of online dissidence – enshrining it as a key foreign policy concern – cracks are beginning to appear in their resolve for a generalised ‘internet freedom’. While attempting to provide practical and material support for digital activists (which is proving extremely controversial in itself, see this and this) the State Department’s attempt to pick and choose which aspects of internet freedom it likes is forcing the mask from ‘21st Century Statecraft’. The irony is that where the ‘internet freedom’ mantra is often no more than a guise for opposition funding in ‘unfriendly’ countries, the rhetoric is catching on and is being mobilized in defense of Wikileaks.
It remains to be seen how the net freedom debate will play out in this round of Wikileaks-inspired struggle. US politicians fill the airwaves with preposterous solutions to the ‘problem’. American companies scramble to make it a hard as possible for the organization to function in a shameful and unprecedented anti-democratic act of corporate excommunication. And the British and Swedish judicial systems have buckled under international political pressure. Yet there remains incredible public support for Wikileaks, elements of the press are rallying behind them, and amateur hackers have taken down the sites of the companies hostile to the group. Furthermore, it has drawn debate about the important issue of Internet freedom and government’s involvement on the web into the mainstream. Many have speculated that this is the first ‘infowar’ – if it is, the battlefield is one which is malleable and unmapped, and as Wikileaks have shown, with the intelligent application of force you can shake the ground.
Hillary Clinton warned in January that “As I speak to you today, government censors somewhere are working furiously to erase my words from the records of history” – a year has passed and it seems the story has come full circle, now we want to hear her words and all the words that power whispers behind closed doors, not meant for us. Wikileaks has shown the flipside of the State Department’s internet freedom rhetoric, the side which appeals to those without power rather than those who wield it, and the future for 21st Century Statecraft is uncertain. Not content with tempting fate once, yesterday the State Department announced it would host the 2011 World Press Freedom Day, on the topic of “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers”. The last week has seen a number of barriers hastily erected, power mobilized in an ad hoc attempt to tame the frontiers – it remains to be seen whether the medium is resistant to such attempts, but the support for Wikileaks has shown that the will is there, and that today the battlefield is perhaps more level than we imagined.
– Roy Revie, from Ayrshire in Scotland, is a researcher in sociology at the University of Strathclyde, where he is examining government communication practices in the digital age. He tweets at @TheBig0ther