Fergus Hanson is a visiting fellow in ediplomacy at the Brookings Institution.
Last year, when Internet users in 12 authoritarian states tried to navigate to the social networking sites we take for granted in the West, they encountered the usual government firewall blocking their access. But there was a twist. Many of them also saw an advertisement alerting them to the fact they could download free tools to circumvent this censorship. Almost half a million users did just that.
It wasn't the work of the hacking group Anonymous or a tech-savvy democracy activist; instead, the organization funding the campaignwas none other than the U.S. Department of State. And it was being rolled out in a string of countries, like Bahrain, Egypt, and Vietnam, that are usually regarded as U.S. partners.
This was not an isolated incident. The rapid growth of online activity has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for subtly undermining repressive regimes — without boots on the ground and, so far, with only a reasonably modest financial commitment. And the State Department has dived head first into this new frontier.
This online activism is not as narrowly targeted as subversive measures from years past, such as Western radio broadcasts beamed into countries under repressive rule. Whereas these broadcasts only offered the opportunity to passively receive another government's perspective on the world, a free Internet allows people everywhere to read whatever they want and express their views without fear of harassment... theoretically.
U.S. policymakers have put great stock in the transformative power of Internet freedom. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, these tools will be used "to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics, to build global support for President Obama's goal of a world without nuclear weapons, [and] to encourage sustainable economic development that lifts the people at the bottom up."
This new tech-savvy approach to democracy promotion has been taken up by the U.S. government with characteristic American zeal. Alec Ross, Clinton's senior advisor for innovation, framed the great conflict of the 21st century as between open and closed systems. The United States, he said, stood "for openness, with an open Internet at its core." Congress has also lent its support, allocating the State Department and USAID a total of $76 million from 2008 to 2011 for Internet freedom activities.
Not everyone, however, is convinced. Evgeny Morozov offers one blistering critique: In his book,The Net Delusion, he points to the overwhelming costs of truly freeing the web, and the risks to activists who put too much faith in circumvention tools that can never be made failsafe. Moreover, he argues that the Western focus on freeing the Internet could have the perverse effect of driving even more restrictive policies from authoritarian regimes.
Before settling on a position though, consider what the State Department is actually doing. The department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) is at the vanguard of this effort. Funding for DRL's more subversive work was originally a Republican initiative, with strong backing from Falun Gong-linked groups like the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. Not surprisingly, its initial focus was on China. It has since been substantially expanded to other authoritarian regimes, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring and the subsequent attempts by governments in the region to both squelch and monitor Internet activism.