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The Net Worth of Open Networks

Even if new technologies can serve both democratic and repressive purposes, no one disputes their continued growth as the economic, social, political, and cultural substrate of our times.
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Let's stop being so confused about the Internet's role in revolutions. Technology works with human networks and amplifies human activities, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. But is an open Internet a human right?

Politics, Ethics, and Constitutional ideals of free speech were the focus of Secretary Hillary Clinton's speech today, marking the first time a major political figure has presented a detailed analysis of the role of Internet freedom in global democracy. Protecting free speech on the Internet was highlighted as critical to global diplomacy and an open society.

David Brooks from the New York Times noted on PBS last Friday that since 1974, 85 autocracies have collapsed under the weight of popular social movements. As these protesters and citizens become further wired, it is critical that United States diplomats use new technologies to listen to these voices and communicate with these citizens with consistency. While it is going to be difficult to implement such a vision, and inevitably points of tension and potential contradiction will emerge, this post lays out key issues from today's speech that we must deal with to protect the Internet as an open and democratic public space.

The Continued Importance and Reach of Technology: Cultures and societies develop using the tools and technologies of their time. With four billion mobile phone users and 30% of the world's population with basic Internet access, it's absurd to dispute the implications of these technologies on social, political, and economic life. While 70% of the world's population has yet to join the conversation, many are indirectly affected by technological change. In an earlier speech on January 21, 2010, Clinton expressed this when she stated,

The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet. When something happens in Haiti or Hunan, the rest of us learn about it in real time -- from real people. And we can respond in real time as well.

Today's speech offered us a way out of an unproductive debate. It asked not whether the Internet as it stands today matters, but instead what kind of world do we want to live in, and whether the public space of our time can be a place of true dialog, exchange, debate, and openness. Even if new technologies can serve both democratic and repressive purposes, no one disputes their continued growth as the economic, social, political, and cultural substrate of our times.

3 Key Diplomatic Questions: New technologies are not static, nor are their uses. Social media is barely past the toddler phase, and its new uses in distant regions of the world are even younger. Working to create a world of openness shifts our discussion away from 'yes' or 'no', toward asking questions like "How can the inevitable increase in mobile and internet users empower democratic aims?" Or "How can one develop social and technological solutions that escape governmental policing, repression, and surveillance?" Or perhaps most importantly, "How can diplomats convince foreign governments that their nation's economic well-being is dependent on an open Internet?

President Obama, in his recent State of the Union address, highlighted the importance of today's information economy on the United States, and its need to innovate to compete. There is an explicit political and ethical dimension to the realities we all experience living in an economic world where the internet has facilitated globalization and outsourcing and how that translates to the health of an economy and the stabilization of a government.

Grassroots Uses of Technology: The recent protests and regime changes in Egypt and Tunisia, and today's spread of protests across the Middle East, including Iran, Yemen, and Bahrain have got every techno-intellectual in a tizzy. In each of these cases, according to yesterday's New York Times, the Internet served as a central organizing hub for protest leaders. Specifically, the article focused Facebook '25 Bahman' page in Iran, Twitter Feeds, and opposition websites. Mobile phone services have been disconnected - yet these sites, set up by sympathetic outsiders, have allowed Iranians to report on the events underway to the global community through uploaded video, audio, and photos. This same article explains, "Twitter feeds informed demonstrators to gather quickly at a certain intersection and then disperse as rapidly--one video showed them burning a government poster as the chant against Ayatollah Khomenei rang out."

Governments, from Egypt a few weeks ago, to Iran today, immediately shut connectivity down as protests emerged, speaking to the importance the technologies have. People in Egypt found a way to circumvent these networks via older technologies, such as fax machines and copiers. Internet technologies have connected organizers with one another across regional and national boundaries. Organizers have used such technologies to strategize carefully and communicate nomadically via proxy servers, even when they spread messages using older media such as megaphones. In Kyrgyzstan, I observed first hand the importance of Internet use by revolutionary leadership in early planning stages, in a nation where over 90% of the population lacks Internet access. As a strategy was developed using the technology, it was then re-mediated into older forms, such as newspapers, messages in megaphones, zines, and posters in remote regions. Moreover, in Egypt and through the Arab world, Al Jazeera and other media networks used the Internet much like the '25 Bahman' Facebook group, to globally broadcast information and events as they happened, through live feeds. This global, real-time exposure to previously distant events increased global scrutiny and sympathy with demonstrators. This global exposure has become a new tool for change as we saw after the Haitian earthquake as well as in Egypt.

Skeptics argue that the Internet has empowered government surveillance, presenting a 'net delusion', or it is largely inaccessible and a Western fetish. Revolutions have come and gone long before the Internet, these skeptics say, and it is humans, not technologies that make the difference. But no one is debating that people are the core and cause of all of this activity. We create technologies in our image, and we use them for the aims we pursue. That was true with the pen and telegraph, and it is true today.