Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin has an interesting article on how the U.S. State Department has been working energetically with Twitter, Facebook, Google et. al. to keep the information pipelines open in Tunisia and Egypt.
The Tunisian government responded by hacking massive amounts of Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail accounts and targeted other sites where protestors were convening or communicating.
Facebook contacted the State Department soon thereafter, another State Department official told The Cable, asking for assistance and to help coordinate the response. Facebook then created an encrypted option for accessing the site from Tunisia…
In addition to encouraging technical workarounds, the State Department effort includes jawboning Ben Ali and Mubarak to back off on information control.
… the State Department convoked the Tunisian ambassador in Washington to complain about the government’s tactics.
In the case of Tunisia, the State Department mixed a strategy of working with companies and third party groups with a series of private and public communications between the Obama administration and the government of now-ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
State Department officials told The Cable that their efforts paid off, given that Ben Ali — before stepping down — said that he “heard the Tunisian people” and removed the blocks on the Internet and social media sites, although he had never cut off the entire country from communication.
I’m sure that Ben Ali, with the wreckage of his regime crashing down around his head, appreciated taking the time out to discuss his social media policy with the United States.
At least he could jet to exile with the consolation that he would not be remembered as the despot who was too mean to Twitter and Facebook.
Mubarak, on the other hand, will have to deal with the shame of having presided over “the worst shutdown in Internet history”.
The situation is rather awkward for the State Department.
After all, Ben Ali and Mubarak were U.S. allies. Helping their opponents evade information controls in order to overthrow their governments is a rather un-allied thing to do.
In Rogin’s article, the State Department makes two rather unconvincing arguments:
1. Hey, Twitter, Facebook, and Google are American companies whose business should not be disrupted!
As Rogin’s source put it,”These tactics were used against American companies, so we have equities on multiple fronts.”
It’s not particularly persuasive to say that the U.S. State Department needed to work actively to abrogate the sovereignty of these two countries in order maintain the usual volume of tweets, eyeballs, and clickthroughs from Tunisia and Egypt on behalf of American corporate entities
2. Hey, these networking services didn’t overthrow the government by themselves!
The State Department official said that while technology was an accelerant for the protests and a way for the protesters to get unvarnished information, it did not spur the movement.
With all due respect, that’s bullshit.
It happens that I believe that dissent will find a way to communicate and organize: pancakes at the fall of the Yuan dynasty, pamphlets during the American revolution, chapatis in India during the Sepoy Rebellion, cassette tapes in Iran at the fall of the Shah.
Sooner or later.
Well, Facebook, Twitter, and Google made it sooner.
The events in Egypt and Tunisia illustrated an American strategy: the U.S. State Department views free communication as a strategic weapon against authoritarian adversaries whose governments are vulnerable to organized popular dissent.
Ever since the State Department intervened during protests by the Iranian Green movement in June 2009, convincing Twitter to postpone maintenance so opposition protestors could communicate, the U.S. government has been ramping up its worldwide effort to set up a network of organizations that could circumvent crackdowns on Internet and cell phone technologies by foreign governments. That effort faced its first two major tests over the last few weeks and the State Department has been working with private companies, non-governmental organizations, and academic institutions to activate this network and put it to use in real time.
“Our mission is to provide a lifeline of protection when people get in trouble through a range of support for the activists and the people on the ground,” Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) Michael Posner said in an interview on Friday with The Cable. “I think there will be an increase in contacts on several levels in the coming days and weeks.”
Even before the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, the State Department was working to drastically increase its activities with the internet freedom organizations, many of them using State Department funding provided through a grant program administered by DRL. This month, State announced it would spend another $30 million on this project.
For Posner, the drive to create an “open platform” for Internet communications is part of the overall drive to protect the universal rights the administration has been trumpeting in recent days and that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out in her speech on Internet Freedom.
Rather ironically, the first successful instances of the policy were classic cases of blowback, taking down two American allies in the Middle East while Iran and China are taking notes on the sidelines.
Rather significantly, the State Department has doubled down.
Ben Ali and Mubarak are history anyway; and their demise can serve a useful demonstration of the power of the information-freedom death star.
The anxieties of the Saudis and King Hussein of Jordan are apparently an acceptable price to pay for declaring to the Iranian and Chinese leaders—and their citizens—that America will continue to apply its ingenuity, energy, and advantages to promote information freedom openly and covertly to apply potentially destabilizing pressure against these regimes.
China is rather anxiously scrubbing the Chinese Internet of stories and comments that emphasize the popular mass-movement character of the risings in Tunisia and Egypt. Published reports focus instead on local chaos and the efforts of the Chinese government to evacuate Chinese nationals.
Global Times took the bit in its teeth and weighed in with a “color revolutions are bad” editorial; the rest of the official media appears to be doing its best to ignore the issue and possible consequences for China.
However, Hu Jintao probably isn’t packing his bags for Switzerland just yet. The Chinese government seems to have enough wealth, time, and legitimacy to apply itself to the serious problems of corruption, income inequality, and the fundamental pig-headedness of one-party states when it comes to managing and channeling dissent.
Also, China has an important advantage.
It has the U.S. as an unmistakable, threatening adversary that serves as a focus for patriotic and nationalistic sentiment.
This probably puts China in a better situation than the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, which have—all information freedom triumphalism aside—found the U.S. as an equivocal, ultimately fatal ally.
Finally, it should be pointed out that the U.S. is all for information freedom—as long as it isn’t Wikileaks. In other words, The Truth Shall Set You Free……Unless It’s My Truth.
PETER LEE edits China Hand.