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Hillary Clinton's Inbox: Citizen Suggestions for Wired Diplomacy

BY Tom Watson | Sunday, March 1 2009

Last week, Secretary Clinton's team at the State Department put up a short post on Dipnote, the departmental blog, asking for suggestions on technology and social media. It asked: "How Might the U.S. Utilize Innovative Technologies To Discuss U.S. Foreign Policy?"

The responses are illuminating and thoughtful, and worth reading by anyone considering the evolution of open government in the digital age.

Real-time, long distance diplomacy was on the mind of commenter Eric in New Mexico, who asked the State Department to imagine this scenario: "...what if the Presidents of the U.S. and Afghanistan could simultaneously hold a "fire-side chat" on a directly interactive, real-time video conference link-up with remote Afghan villages?"

While crediting many State Department innovations online dating back six or more years - including "blogging, doing Twitter feeds, using Facebook, podcasting etc" -Jack in Virginia also zeroed in on some limitations:

"We have a significant structural dilemma using interactive technologies -- they are interactive. One person can only interact -- really interact -- with a limited number of people. Experts usually say it is around 150 maximum, and strong interaction is probably limited to a dozen or so. With larger groups, is more like a broadcast, which is the old paradigm. "

Jennifer in West Virginia wants bloggers on the road with top U.S. diplomats: "Would you consider allowing a citizen journalist, just an every day citizen, to accompany Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and/or perhaps U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke to cover their diplomatic efforts from an every day citizen's point of view?"

Phil in Maryland urged a return to distributing key bits of media to the masses:

"Something a little more specific than previous posters: DoS used to post daily briefings -- audio and video -- as well as other "breaking news" and key speeches on iTunes as podcasts. Nothing has been posted since October of 2008. It would be worthwhile to resume those posts in order to reach the growing number of people who use iTunes for non-entertainment audio and video content. No doubt items posted there could include a tagline to encourage people to discuss content on DoS-run sites like this one."

B.W. in Washington, DC suggested changes to Clinton's public suggestion box:

"I visited the "Ask the Secretary" website, and I was surprised that the questions were not posted in a manner similar to this. I have not asked any questions of the secretary, but I can imagine that a fair amount of people have the same or similar questions. Also if it was set up more like a blog then people could have potential questions answered as well."

Finally, Zharkov in U.S.A. noted a huge obstacle to more open communication worldwide by the U.S. State Department:

The question explicitly states that the State Department wants to communicate directly with foreign citizens and discuss U.S. foreign policy without filtering this information through foreign officials and without the consent of foreign officials.

If this idea was reversed, and U.S. citizens had direct communications with foreign officials, it could constitute a violation of the Logan Act.

However, the nations most likely to benefit from direct contact with their citizens also censor internet communications and are unlikely to permit their citizens to be exposed to such information.

Foreign citizens in those nations may be subject to arrest and imprisonment for communicating directly with U.S. government employees. The people most likely to want to be friends with the U.S. in those nations may be the first to lose their freedom.