Are the Internet and Social Media ‘Tools of Freedom’ or ‘Tools of Oppression?’

The role of the Internet and social media in what has been described as the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and the rest of the Middle East is one of the hottest topics in technology and foreign policy. Ever since the #IranElection hashtag first gave the world a look at social media as forum for information exchange about civil unrest outside of state-controlled media, there has been a huge explosion oof forums and op-eds exploring the question of whether YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, cellphones, crisis mapping and other technology platforms were creating the conditions for revolution — or acting as an accelerant to the embers of revolution. The State Department’s “Internet freedom” policy has come into conflict with both autocrats whose iron rule has carried over from the 21st century using Facebook and mobile technology to track down dissidents and Western democracies seeking increased electronic surveillance powers over the network of networks that now spans the globe.

As with so many other communications tools, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the connection technologies whose use has rapidly brought more of us together can be used in both positive and negative ways, much in the same way the printing press, radio or television changed the distribution of ideas and news in past centuries. Cellphones equipped with cameras and connected to the rest of the world have become the eyes and ears of young people in the Middle East. They can also be used to track them.

In a year when the leader of Libya mentioned Facebook by name and Egypt shuts down the Internet, it would be easy to simply celebrate the role of people power accelerated by social media. Not so fast. These social media platforms of 2011 can and will be used to people, governments and covert organizations to greenwash, astroturf or distribute propaganda or misinformation. This reality has been articulated by Evgeny Morozov in The Net Delusion and emphasized again in a commentary today on the role of social networking in the Arab Spring. While Wael Ghonim said that without social networking, this wouldn’t have happened, Morozov emphasizes that it took the bravery of millions of young people to show up in real life in Tahir Square in Egypt or in the streets of Tunisia for this to become a reality.

Smarter social networking” in the service of the ends of dictators and autocrats can and will happen, along with so many other spheres of public life. As Ben Scott, innovation advisor of the State Department acknowledged at an AMP Summit in D.C. on social networking and Egypt last month, it is happening, with more use of tools for negative purpose to come. “The question is no longer does technology matter,” he said. “It’s how, and in what ways.”

“Network effects are politically agnostic,” said Scott. These connection technologies are not causing revolution. “They’re accelerating them.”

The question of whether these connection technologies are by their nature aligned with greater freedoms has also, literally, been up for debate. When it comes to a bigger question — whether connection technologies are more useful for democrats or dictators — Scott said that on the whole, he thought the proliferation of connection technologies is good for democracy. The online audience in a recent debate at between Stanford’s Evgeny Morozov and Harvard’s John Palfrey decided by a narrow margin that the Internet is “inherently” a force for democracy. The full dialogue between the two men is well worth reading in its entirety.

Whether that view or this architecture of the Internet itself persists has other members of the academy concerned as well. As Harvard computer science professor Jonathan Zittrain observes in the Scientific American, keeping the Internet open, distributed and free is not a certain outcome.

Attacks on Internet sites and infrastructure, and the compromise of secure information, pose a particularly tricky problem because it is usually impossible to trace an attack back to its instigator. This “attribution problem” is so troublesome that some law-enforcement experts have called for a wholesale reworking of Internet architecture and protocols, such that every packet of data is engraved with the identity of its source. The idea is to make punishment, and therefore deterrence, possible. Unfortunately, such a reworking would also threaten what makes the Internet special, both technologically and socially.

The Internet works thanks to loose but trusted connections among its many constituent parts, with easy entry and exit for new Internet service providers or new forms of expanding access. That is not the case with, say, mobile phones, in which the telecom operator can tell which phone placed what call and to whom the phone is registered. Establishing this level of identity on the Internet is no small task, as we have seen with authoritarian regimes that have sought to limit anonymity. It would involve eliminating free and open Wi-Fi access points and other ways of sharing connections. Terminals in libraries and cybercafes would have to have verified sign-in rosters. Or worse, Internet access would have to be predicated on providing a special ID akin to a government-issued driver’s license—perhaps in the form of a USB key. No key, no bits. To be sure, this step would not stop criminals and states wanting to act covertly but would force them to invest much more to achieve the anonymity that comes so naturally today.

The history of the introduction of new communication tools is a reminder that most disruptive technologies have dual uses. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge was the first President of the United States to make a radio broadcast from the White House. A decade later, Hitler and Stalin were using the same tool to spread a different kind of message.

Nearly a century later, the current occupant of the White House is using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, apps and live video on to communicate with citizens, both of the United States or in other countries. While the White House can claim some open source cred for running on Drupal, much of the rest world has long since becoming aware of the disruptive nature of a more wired society that is connected to the Internet.

The debate about the role of connection technologies in Internet freedom spans many audiences. Last month, the discussion came to the Cato Institute, where a debate on social media and revolutions was moderated by Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at Cato. The discussion featured Christopher Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at Cato Institute, Tim Karr, Campaign Director, Free Press, and this correspondent.

The same platforms that can and are being used to transmit breathtaking moments of wonder,
hear digital cries for help or lift up the voices of the citizens in oppressed societies to the rest of the world will also be used against them. Palfrey has further explored Middle East conflict and an Internet tipping point for the Internet at MIT’s Tech Review. His conclusion is worth sharing again:

Today, we are entering a period that we should call “access contested.” Activists around the world are pushing back on the denial of access and controls put in place by states that wish to restrict the free flow of information. This round of the contest, at least in the Middle East and North Africa, is being won by those who are using the network to organize against autocratic regimes. Online communities such as and peer-to-peer technologies like mesh networking provide specific ways for people to get involved directly in shaping how these technologies develop around the world.

But it would be a big mistake to presume that this state of affairs will last for long, or that it is an inevitable outcome. History shows us that there are cycles to the way that technologies, and how we use them, change over time, as Timothy Wu argues in his new book, The Master Switch. The leaders of many states, like China, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan, have proven able to use the Internet to restrict online discussion and to put people into jail for what they do using the network. We should resist the urge to cheer the triumph of pro-Western democracy fueled by widespread Internet access and usage. The contest for control of the Internet is only just beginning.

As the rest of the world watches the changes sweeping the Middle East through snippets of cellphone video uploaded to YouTube and curated by digital journalists like Andy Carvin, connected citizens have unprecedented capacity to drink from the firehose of revolutionary media. The role of the Internet as a platform for collective action is growing. The challenge is what people do with it.

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New iPhone app connects trained citizens to others in cardiac distress

In 2011, there needs to be a better way to empower citizens trained in CPR to receive alerts about nearby cardiac arrest victims with geolocated maps and the location of electronic defribrillators to help them.

Now, there’s an app for that too: The new new geolocation app connects citizen first responders to heart attack victims in San Ramon. FireDepartment can be downloaded directly from iTunes.

Today the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District (SRVFPD) in California launched a iPhone app that will dispatch trained citizens to help others in cardiac emergencies. This new application is the latest evolution of the role of citizens as sensors, where resources and information are connected to those who need it most in the moment. This FireDepartment app is also an important example of Gov 2.0, where a forward looking organization created a platform for citizens to help each another in crises and planned to make the underlying code available for civic developers to improve on. Given context and information, trained citizens in San Ramone will now be able to do more than alert authorities and share information: they can act to save lives. Here’s a demo of the app:

iPhone Demo from Fire Department on Vimeo.

Adriel Hampton called FireDepartment the perfect blend of technology, government and volunteers. Can an everyday citizen become a hero? As Joe Hackman observed, “Today it just got a lot easier.”

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A President and his BlackBerry

President Barack Obama checks his BlackBerry en route to the Oval Office, Dec. 13, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama checks his BlackBerry en route to the Oval Office, Dec. 13, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

White House photographer Pete Souza captured this striking nighttime silhouette of President Obama and his “ObamaBerry this week. Despite the connection this image implies, don’t expect to get a reply from questions directed to answered any time soon. President Obama is less reachable than, say, Steve Jobs, as several people who have written to have found. As Engadget reported earlier this year, after President Obama said that presidential BlackBerry ownership is no fun, he probably not exchanging email with more than a dozen other people on Earth.

If you’ll recall, Obama fought hard early on for the privilege of maintaining his prized BlackBerry, and while he eventually won out, we learned today that a grand total of ten individuals are authorized to ping it. Yeah, ten. Needless to say, he described that depressing fact as “no fun,” and even the folks that are cleared to make contact with it won’t send over anything juicy. Why? They know that messages sent to it “will probably be subject to the presidential records act,” so those lucky enough to have the digits are also smart enough to divert their ramblings to Texts From Last Night.

While President Obama tweeted once on the Red Cross acount, it’s also a safe bet that he’s not having any fun tweeting as @BarackObama either, nor that it will be replacing the Red Phone to Russia. That said, the vision of a more digitally connected president fits the moment in history, with nearly 30 % of Americans toting smartphones at the end of 2010, with 50% penetration estimated for 2011.

Despite the potential IT security risks for the president and other government workers that smartphones present, as Chris Soghioan pointed out last year at CNET,  that hasn’t stopped them from making their way into the hands of tens of thousands of Washingtonians in the District of Columbia. Last night, I watched and smiled as new hires at the local startup agency poked and prodded at their new BlackBerrys, getting comfortable with the functions of one what has become an important communication tools for their trade.

President Barack Obama answers questions about the economy from local families as, from left, Senior Advisor David Axelrod, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, Director of Speechwriting Jon Favreau, and Trip Director Marvin Nicholson wait in a hallway of the Southhampton Recreation Association in Richmond, Va., Sept. 29, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama answers questions about the economy from local families as, from left, Senior Advisor David Axelrod, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton, Director of Speechwriting Jon Favreau, and Trip Director Marvin Nicholson wait in a hallway of the Southhampton Recreation Association in Richmond, Va., Sept. 29, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

As I observed at O’Reilly Answers earlier this year, when it comes smartphone market share, the BlackBerry still rules Washington.

Instead of 2:1 ratio of BlackBerry to iPhone users, it’s more like 106 to 1. As a recent story in the Washington Post that explored whether iPhones will edge out BlackBerrys in Washington reported, there are currently 86 iPhone users at work amongst the aides, staff and officials in the House of Representatives, versus some 9,140 BlackBerry users. There are tens of thousands more spread among the other federal agencies.

That’s changing, albeit more slowly in official Washington than it is in the rest of the country. “This quarter saw Apple and Android drive record smartphone sales. Apple’s share of the smartphone market surpassed Research In Motion (RIM) in North America to put it second behind Android while Android volumes also grew rapidly making it the No. 2 operating system worldwide,” said  Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner.

Over the course of the past year, this correspondent has seen many more iPhones in evidence here in Washington, along with a surge of Android devices in the falll. As Politico reported earlier this month, a tech overhaul may allow both iPads, iPhones and BlackBerrys on to the floor of the Senate. This summer, Rep. Charles Djou made history when he tweeted that “The House Parliamentarian told me that I’m the first Member of Congress to ever use an iPad” during a floor speech.” There are reports that the iPad is popular with White House staff and in the Cabinet is using iPads. In the judicial branch of government, the competition is between iPad and the Kindle in the Supreme Court, with Justice Kagan leaning Kindle and Justice Scalia leaning iPad for reading their briefs.

One point of clarity exists with respect to Washington and smartphones: it’s generally not an “either/or” proposition in this city. Most of official Washington travels with both a work BlackBerry and another device for personal use, for any number of pragmatic records and security reasons.

It’s likely that a paperless Congress is still a few years away, but who knows: maybe the increase of smartphones will be a boon to get more Washingtonians shifting their thinking from “there’s a form for that” to “there’s an app for that” in 2011.

[Hat tip to Nancy Scola for the image and caption. This may have been one the most apt finds ever for at blog named “techPresident.”]

The NewsHour interviews Alec J. Ross on digital diplomacy and 21st Century Statecraft

What do State Department officials mean when they talk about ” 21st Century Statecraft?” The PBS Newshour’s digital correspondent, Hari Sreenivasan, sat down with Alec J. Ross, senior adviser for innovation at the State Department, to learn how technology is being leveraged to accomplish foreign policy goals. Sreenivasan subsequently published an excellent post on diplomacy and 21st Century statecraft at the Rundown, the Newshour blog, that includes the video below:

As Sreenivasan notes, the State Department has been rapidly moving forward in its use of technology, as reported in Radar on applying technology for Internet freedom. The question of whether the US should support Internet freedom through technology is a complex one, and deserves serious scrutiny as it moves forward, as evidenced by the Haystack fiasco.

What does 21st Century Statecraft mean? Sreenivasan takes a swing at reporting on Ross’s take:

In light of the seismic shifts taking place in how information and people interact and engage with one another, Ross says a broadening of the practice of statecraft is necessary. Going forward, that means using a balance of soft and hard power to enable and support relationships between non-state actors, and between representatives of governments.The prescription calls for far more than giving diplomats Twitter training, or simply using social media to push “the message” out. It is also about connecting people to resources efficiently and effectively, from NGOs to governments to people in need of aid.

In addition to spending money on new forms of digital diplomacy, the State Department has more often used its clout to convene bright minds from the private sector and the NGO world in a series of Tech@State conferences. They have included gatherings to share ideas on leveraging mobile technology, finding and empowering technology assistance in Haiti’s recovery and, more recently, rethinking Civil Society.

Sreenivasan included a host of excellent links to learn more about 21st Century statecraft, including:

  • An essay in Foreign Affairs entitled “America’s Edge” (requires one-time free registration) by Anne-Marie Slaughter. It was published around the same time that the former Dean of the Woodrow Wilson school at Princeton University was appointed as the new Director of Policy Planning at the State Department.
  • A essay by Eric Shmidt and Jared Cohen of Google titled The Digital Disruption, also in Foreign Affairs, which discusses the challenges facing diplomacy. As Sreenivasan notes, Cohen recently moved to Google from the State Department, where he had been working with Ross on 21st Century Statecraft. The New York Times Magazine covered their digital diplomacy efforts this this past summer.
  • Sam Dupont of NDN has gathered a list of 21st Century statecraft initiatives.

The Newshour has been extending its coverage into Gov 2.0 since Sreenivasan reported on the Gov 2.0 Expo and Summit earlier this year. For more of its past coverage, check out their conversation with Todd Park, the Chief Technology Officer of HHS, and excerpts from their conversation with White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and federak CIO Vivek Kundra. It’s a significant evolution to see Gov 2.0 be discussed on the Newshour, CBS or Dan Rather reports. Whether it’s enough to raise national awareness of open government challenges, success or failure is itself an open question.