Now Is a Lousy Time to Be a Control Freak

International politics has arrived in the digital age. Florian Guckelsberger and Lars Mensel sat down with Alec Ross, Senior Innovation Adviser to Hillary Clinton, to talk about Wikileaks, the future of copyright and the mood among Arab youth.

The European: You have said that the 21st century was a lousy time for control freaks. That must be a tough stance in an argument, especially after “cable gate” in late 2010.
Ross: No, I think people would agree with that. I think that Wikileaks would not have been physically possible 10 years ago. It is an organization that is made up of members and followers instead of paid staff, with a web address instead of a street address. And so the very existence of an organization like Wikileaks which is built on transnational virtual networks actually proofs the point that control is much more difficult in a networked world.

The European: But isn’t that an unsatisfying answer? Would you not want to prevent such a “cable gate” from happening again?
Ross: Honesty is important. All of our rights come with a corresponding set of responsibilities. You will never hear me do anything but condemn the actions of Wikileaks. When I explain that the 21st century was a lousy time to be a control freak I don’t say that by way of advocacy. I say it by way of explanation. I would love to be able to dunk a basketball but there is this thing called gravity. Similarly, in a world that is more and more networked, a corresponding loss of control comes with that. I am not saying that this is good or that it is bad, it is just explaining the geopolitics of it.

The European: Can you make use of it in foreign policy?
Ross: There are a variety of different ways. Just think about development and about efforts to fight poverty. If information can now flow, sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central Asia and other places that were historically more isolated, are now significantly less isolated in part because of connectivity and so people are now able to connect to markets and ideas in ways they were not able in the past. The United States is the largest organization in the world focusing on development. We spend more of our tax payer dollars on fighting poverty than any other country in the world. We want to make sure that these millions of dollars mean that we are actually reducing poverty. So with this connectivity, there is now more infrastructure to help lift people out of poverty or to help people help themselves out of poverty. A second way is with communication. Government communication is typically done by somebody in a white shirt, black tie and a pinstripe suit talking to another diplomat in a white shirt, black tie and a pinstripe suit. This is traditional diplomatic engagement. What social media allows for, is for us to connect and engage with people whom you would never sit across a mahogany table drinking tea with. Let me give you one real world example. After the revolution in Egypt, we were listening to what people were saying on social media. One of the things we heard was that Egyptian youth were not happy with the United States. We issued this with Hillary Clinton. And she said that she wanted to talk to these young people who do not like America.

The European: She would have to talk to quite a few people…
Ross: Historically, this is what would have happened: The Embassy would have gone out and found very polite young Egyptians to come in and sit around a government conference table, fold their hands and ask very polite questions. Pictures would have been taken and we would have issued a press release that says: “Secretary of State engages with Egyptian youth”. But because of social media, we created a partnership with the Egyptian social media platform “Masrawy” which has lots of credibility on the street and allowed young people to ask direct questions to Hillary Clinton for 30 minutes. We did not make any requirements except that the questions come from Egyptian youth. We got questions from really tough bloggers and people who don’t like the United States and Hillary Clinton looked into that camera and answered the questions directly and honestly. She did not necessarily say what they wanted to hear but people who would never before would have got to sit across the table from her, were able to ask questions.

The European: What did they want to know?
Ross: A lot of it was about America’s support for the Mubarak regime.

The European: Let’s say you were about to do the same thing in Saudi Arabia in a few months. Wouldn’t you be afraid of getting asked why the US is selling fight jets to Saudi Arabia?
Ross: We are not going to apologize for selling arms to Saudi Arabia. If a Saudi youth asks us this question, the responsible thing to do and the honest thing to do is to explain your point of view. Saudi-Arabia is an ally. But there is another important thing in a relationship like the one we have with Saudi Arabia: if they do things that we don’t like, even though they are our ally, it is important to be able to raise that topic. So for example, a topic that I care a lot about is online censorship. And something that Secretary Clinton puts a lot into is the rights of women. We do sell arms to Saudi Arabia but when there was a campaign pushing for women to be able to drive, whose voice was the loudest on planet earth? Hillary Clinton’s. So it is important for relationships to be open, honest and in balance.

The European: Hillary Clinton has been outspokenly critical of all sorts of resolutions restricting the freedom of the Internet. How credible is this while the US Congress debates SOPA?
Ross: Congress can debate whatever they want. Until it’s law, it is not US policy. So our credibility is completely undiminished.

The European: In some countries, technology is used to restrict internet access. What can the State Department do to curtail the spread of such technologies, especially in the light of the fact that they go very much against what the Secretary of State is saying?
Ross: Since I have been on the job, we have spent 70 million dollars on technologies to work around these government efforts. It’s a constant back and forth. We support the development of technologies and training to help people access an open Internet. And other governments are going to spend a lot of money developing technologies the purpose of which is to curtail their citizens’ access to the Internet.

The European: So, your hands are tied?
Ross: No, our hands are not tied. If they were tied, we would not do anything about it. What we have done is that we have spent 75 million dollars to develop these technologies. We also raised that diplomatically. Three or four years ago Internet freedom was not considered something on a grand stage that foreign ministers talk about. Today it is and it is because of Hillary Clinton. She launched our internet freedom agenda with a speech on January 21st 2010. That took the internet as a human rights issue and made of something very obscure that geeks may have cared about and something that foreign ministers care about.

The European: Isn’t that something that people have started to care about a couple of years ago?
Ross: But mostly among elites and certainly in the community that I travel in but there are seven billion people on planet earth. I don’t think that the internet as a human right was something of a mass movement five years ago. I have spent eight years of my life hoping to bring technology to poor people. Obviously this is something that is close to my heart. But my point is: among foreign ministers it was not big until she made it big. And that’s the environment that we work in.

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