How NATO and the US State Department endanger internet freedom

By Roy Revie

Earlier this month the Guardian reported a military parade in Esfahan marking Iran’s Army Day in which military placards warned of the dangers of Western cultural influence. Emphasis was given, in a sort of ‘what will they think of next’ way, to a poster warning of the “damages of the Facebook internet site” – pictured here. The image certainly does seem strange – until you look into the context. The Iranian regime have been talking about a “soft war” being waged against it by a “cultural NATO” intent on undermining the ideology of the Islamic Republic for a while now. Ridicule and claims of paranoia have hitherto been the primary response from the West – this is regrettable as some of the underlying issues are of key importance for contemporary foreign policy, and the internet’s role in political change.

Typical of Western reports about Iranian concerns over ‘soft war’ is a recent AP article, which uses the term to contextualise Iranian schemes as various as a “hack-proof communications network for [the IRGC’s] high-level commanders”, possibly involving – shock horror! – “special relay towers and passcodes” (something surely recognised universally as a military necessity); fear of “internet espionage and viral attacks from abroad”; the attempt to “choke off opposition outlets at home”; and accusations that internet tools like Google and Facebook are instruments of espionage. The first two examples obviously reflect the understandable sense of being besieged the Iranian regime feels and hints at countermeasures we would expect any sovereign state to take – the leap to internal repression in the later examples seem to go beyond this, however in terms of taking defensive measures against foreign states, they can be conceptually situated on a threat continuum that goes from Stuxnet right through to Twitter.

To be clear: this is not a defence of the Iranian regime, but a call for a more reflective look at Western leveraging of the Internet in foreign policy, an issue which is too often laughed off but which is endangering the potential of the Internet as a tool of political change. The Iranian regime evidently feels the sovereignty of the state and their hegemony is threatened by an open internet. Of course it is. Any medium which allows uncensored, unlimited, and potentially anonymous communication between an otherwise oppressed citizenry is bound to have a disruptive effect. So much the better. But one of the biggest threats to the open internet in Iran (and elsewhere) comes not from the regime itself, but from muddled, short-sighted and naïve embrace of the social media by high profile Western actors: most notably in NATO’s recent announcements, and in ‘Internet freedom’ policy in the US State Department. These policies amount to highly public, PR-friendly rhetorical embrace of the role of social media in facilitating democratic change, which through ill-advised intervention create the conditions for authoritarian internet backlash, and risks furthering political and social repression in the very countries they purport to support.

A recent announcement by NATO produced a strange vindication for the Iranian regime’s warnings of a “Cultural NATO” using soft power to destabilise foreign countries, especially through the Internet. It came in the form of a Huffington Post article by Dr. Stefanie Babst, NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy, and Elizabeth Linder, Facebook’s ‘Politics & Government Specialist for Europe, Middle East and Africa’ entitled “NATO and Facebook Join Forces in the Global Digital Age”. The article is the now familiar Web 2.0-utopian bluster: hailing new forms of engagement, empowerment, and transparency – contemporary policy must be “inclusive of the people whose ideas can help shape our policies.” The Secretary General  of NATO uses Facebook because he “wants others to know what he is doing and wants to know what people everywhere think about transatlantic issues”!

You can share things on NATO’s Facebook wall, join them on Twitter and Flickr, or engage on their new WE-NATO platform. But this claim to edginess would remain unvalidated were it not for the eager embrace of the likes of Facebook. Emplifying a terrifying vacuity, Facebook celebrates such moments as when General Stavridis, “announces that NATO successfully terminated its mission in Libya via a Facebook post”.

The NATO-Facebook complex wants to move away from just “shouting out” messages and dictating policy, to a world in which “the wisdom of crowds gives organizations an unprecedented opportunity to make increasingly more informed, more nuanced, and certainly more thoughtful decisions”. In a world of military power and diplomatic realpolitik there is not a chance of this happening, but it sounds nice. The problem is that this zeitgeisty PR justifies the actions of every internet-fearing tyrant with access to the Huffington Post. How can NATO and Facebook think that the publication of an article like this, in which (within the fluff) they mention deepened bonds with bloggers “from member countries, as well as from Russia, Ukraine and across the Middle East”, ties with “eminent digital activists and online journalists”, and the use of social media sites for “direct links to people”, will have a positive effect on the wellbeing of the Internet in countries outside of or wary of NATO’s threat. Such statements — which I asked NATO to clarify across 3 social media platforms and was ignored — do not benefit activists and journalists working in dangerous situations, upon whom they only bring more suspicion; nor do they benefit those looking to use the internet for social change, as they invite crackdowns by foreign governments. The only beneficiary is NATO’s PR wing which gets a brief moment of tech-savvy street cred. Those who actually use the internet to engage, empower, and work towards social change pay the price.

It would be unfair, however, to pick on this one example. In other foreign policy-cheap social media publicity news we have seen reports of Hilary Clinton meeting with “Twitter chief Dick Costolo” in Silicon Valley. There is history here between State and Twitter: during the 2009 Iranian election protests, the former asked Twitter to stay online in order to keep information flowing. This move vastly exaggerated the role Twitter played and, as an Iranian activist told me, “killed social media in Iran” at the time. This is the problem in microcosm: ill-advised action of dubious value, backed by enthusiastic pro-Internet rhetoric produce predictably negative effects in the country it purports to help. If the US government and NATO believe that social media tools can bring about democratic change the best thing it can do is to leave them well alone. Unfortunately the trend is towards an increasingly close relationship between State and technology companies.

Clinton’s meeting with Twitter executives coincided with the publication of an article which explained how “Hillary’s innovation team tackles brave new digital world”. The article recounts the now-familiar story of how ‘Senior Adviser for Innovation’ Alec Ross and his team “are revolutionizing the conduct of U.S. diplomacy” through Internet-savvy policies. These changes range from everything to tweeting ambassadors to the creation of “Virtual Embassy Tehran” to the use of “subversive diplomacy” aimed at “undermining authoritarian regimes”. These are patently different aspects of policy: the first is traditional public affairs and PR with an internet twist (critically discussed by Peter Van Buren here, and here). While the latter, the provision of counter-censorship tools and running of online information spaces aimed at foreign activists, and “providing dissidents and opposition movements with the tools to evade censorship”, can legitimately be called acts of ‘soft war’ since they are aimed at destabilising governments with which the US disagrees.

The State Department sells it’s internet diplomacy domestically in articles like this as a utopian issue, an institutional paradigm shift – they want a free internet so everyone in the world can talk to each other — they can tweet @ Hilary Clinton and engage in dialogue. Everything will be open! Yet institutionally the policy is pitched as “Internet Freedom” itself, about simply the preservation of a free public space. Issues of US ownership of major platforms, of ties between Government and the tech industry, of aggressive foreign policy, of the role the US itself plays in controlling the internet, remain unspoken. But this correlation is not lost on the Iranian regime, which predictably parades social media as a threat. This, alas, is a direct response to the naïve and frivolous deployment of ‘internet freedom’ rhetoric by Western foreign policy actors.

The potential exists for Internet tools to play an important role in challenging the power of oppressive governments. The ability to unlock this potential lies not with governments themselves however, but with creative, careful and informed use of new technologies by individuals and groups to meet their goals – as the geeks of the Arab Spring showed. For all the rhetoric about interactivity, openness, and dialogue the foreign policy whiz kids in Western capitals have still to learn this. The crux of the issue lies in the fact that organisations and NATO and the State Department seek predictable, measurable and controllable change. As we have seen, these things are increasingly elusive in the Internet age. What is painfully predictable, however, is the oppressive backlash brought on by the misguided actions of outsiders for which real proponents of change pay a price.


5 thoughts on “How NATO and the US State Department endanger internet freedom”

  1. Roy, I appreciate much in this piece, but feel compelled to challenge a few of your assumptions and assertions.

    One thing I’ve learnt as an activist myself, is that the minute I make the charge of naivete, I am bound to reveal my own naivete in the process: none of us know the whole picture and all we have is our perspective.

    Here’s mine: the internet is not objectively free any more than you are objectively free as a citizen in your own country or as an individual in a sea of relationships you can influence but not control. On the other hand, all are subjectively free: where we see obstacles we are free to try and overcome them and often we do. The Arab Spring and before that the change of regimes in Indonesia are proof of that and I expect China to follow. Any governmental or NATO attempt to corral the space seems to be matched by your desire to keep them at bay: neither will entirely succeed.

    Secondly, you might want to look at the Huffington Post article by Stephanie Babst and Elizabeth Linder more closely: at the bottom it says that neither are speaking on behalf of their organisations. That is significant since both women have taken a principled stance to keep a relationship possible in the face of predictable fears arising within the ranks. Their experience of slowly prising open heavy doors that were previously triple bolted must be congratulated not sneered at. Its the conversations on the margins of any organisation that slowly change its impact on the environment.

    The debates I would keep an eye on are on the developing roles of diplomacy, public diplomacy and soft power – three very different forms of agency in a fast changing world. As much as national leaders may attempt to use the first two to manipulate their audiences, it is the third, soft power, that is shaping their freedom to act. As much as China opens Confucius Centres to encourage a better understanding of its deeper culture, the decision to continue incarcerating dissident artists tells us more. As much as Obama laughs and jokes his way to the next election, his grim pursuit of drone warfare, tragically, tells us more.

    While I might share some of your frustration with the obstacles governments provide, I don’t agree that the divide between us and them is quite as you have painted it.

    1. Thanks for your comments Indra,

      In response to a few of your points:

      – I don’t have any illusions about internet freedom, or the ability to shut the IRL world of geopolitics, power, capital, etc. out of the online world. I do however think internet tools offer an emancipatory potential in certain situations – usually through the creative and considered use of these tools by dedicated and smart individuals. We can look at how the open source movement steps outside the logic of capital, or how Nawaat facilitated a proliferation of repressed voices in Tunisia as good examples of this. My problem is with State and NATO trying to control and wield this potential for foreign policy objectives, I don’t think it works and, more importantly, it undermines the activities of those who might otherwise be able to creatively use technology in political struggles.

      I know to expect NATO or the US government to simply cede the high ground of cyberspace to the chaotic force of a networked citizenry is as foolish as thinking the Chinese government will simply open up the internet – but it isn’t just an ideological point I’m making: I think it’s bad policy.

      – On the attribution of the article to the individuals rather than the organization: I don’t accept that at all. It’s a meaningless disclaimer. The article is a description of NATO activities from a leader member of their communication staff – to accept it as in individual intervention is analytically sloppy. To expect foreign (especially adversary) countries to do so is fantasy.

      My intention isn’t to sneer at the authors attempts to bring about tough institutional change – its to argue the change they are trying to bring about is dangerous and counterproductive.

      – I totally agree with what you say about the role of soft power – I think this is the issue which the US faces in terms of foreign policy. I wrote about the words/deeds issue in the networked age in another article here.


  2. Very interesting article.. however, wondering whether soft power would not play a more important part in foreign policy if the alternative were not backed by such an established and long-armed industry, or alternatively, soft power were backed by money and influence.

    Also, you say that elephants such as NATO search for controlled change – I say not at all – they search for stability – there is a difference.
    Change implies a reevaluation – a road they do not like to go down.

    My words in Brussels : “Crisis is the new Constant” … guess they still need to wrap their brains around that one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s