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The Perils of Digital Diplomacy

The buzz at the State Department is all about Civil Society 2.0 — the idea that the U.S. can help NGOs prosper through judicious use of technology. But at least one one international relations wonk believes Civil Society 2.0 will actually empower repressive regimes.

Civil Society 2.0

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These days, the buzz at the
State Department is all about Civil
Society 2.0
— the idea that the United States can help
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations
(CSOs) prosper through judicious use of technology and the Internet.
Civil Society 2.0 projects have names like
Random Hacks of Kindness and
Tech@State.

But one well-known
international relations wonk believes Civil Society 2.0 will actually
empower repressive regimes.

Tufts
University’s Daniel Drezner is a popular blogger at
Foreign
Policy
magazine

and
a prominent expert on international politics. In a recent
article published in The Brown Journal of World Affairs —sadly,
behind a paywall
 Drezner puts forth the case that social networking actually helps repressive
regimes once, say, the heady days of protests in the streets of
Tehran come to an end. Nancy Schola of TechPresident.com summed up
Drezner’s
argument
:

More
than having “no appreciable effect,” Drezner concludes a
bit later in the piece that networked technologies might actually
have a deleterious impact in oppressed lands once things have moved
past a sort of magic window of the first round of protests, something
we saw in Iran where the regime in Tehran started using tools like
Twitter and blogs to track down dissidents and start to turn the wave
of public opinion back their way.

Things look a bit different in
places where, like China, an regime that has restrictive tendencies
also would really like to use the Internet and mobile and all the
rest to boost their country’s economic activity; there, there’s a bit
more of an opening, because it’s nearly impossible for a country that
wants to exploit the web to impose a perfect regime of censorship at
the same time. To boil it all down, the Internet might seem like a
global organism, but its meaning and potential differs tremendously
depending on the real-world relationship that already exists between
human creatures and the governments under which they live.

As for
Civil Society 2.0, the initiative’s various aspects take an admirable
approach to the possibilities of social media and grassroots
technology for on-the-ground statescraft. Western governments have
long assisted NGOs and CSOs in their efforts to stabilize foreign
countries, build up foreign economies, and spread
“soft
power.”
Civil Society 2.0 takes this mission and
augments it with a healthy dose of evangelism for Twitter and
open-source
software
.

But
the argument that Civil Society 2.0 may unintentionally booster
repressive regimes has evidence to support it.
Fast Company
has already reported on the State
Department’s championing of Haystack
, a software/server package
that promised anonymous and untraceable web surfing to
Iranian dissidents. Haystack was touted by Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton as an example of using new technology to empower Iranians.
However, Haystack turned out to be so
easily hackable that Iranian authorities could easily find out the
identities of users.

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Similarly,
foreign governments at odds with NGOs and CSOs may
find it quite easy
to adapt the Internet to their own purposes.
The Chinese government has hired
data miners to help them identify internet activists
. In
Singapore, the internet is closely
monitored by government officials
for signs of dissent. Maybe
that is why Google
has turned loosening China’s censorship laws
into a business aim
of their own.

Activists
from China, Thailand, Iran and the Arab world have raised concerns
that Civil Society 2.0 could end up backfiring
and harming them
as well. Says Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia: “Having the U.S and other Western governments as major actors
in the Internet freedom field could present a real threat to
activists who accept their support and funding. A
hyper-politicization of the digital activism movement and an
appropriation of its “success” to achieve geopolitical goals … are now considered by many as the “kiss
of death”.”

To the
State Department’s credit, Civil Society 2.0 is doing a lot of
undoubtedly
good work
. Thanks to the efforts of current State Department
officials and former electronic evangelists like Jared
Cohen
, smart partnerships have been enacted with Google,
Microsoft, the World Bank and others to empower NGOs.

Drezner’s
critique, however, remains relevant. New solutions will create new problems.
These problems will vary from country to country – literacy programs in Bolivia using open-source software
will have far different issues to contend with than democracy
activists in Syria making forays into social networking. Just like Web 2.0, Civil Society 2.0 is no one-size-fits-all solution.

 

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