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The Idea that Is Google

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, August 31 2010

Evgeny Morozov emerges from three months in the Belorussian forest no more enamored with the U.S. State Department's vision of "digital diplomacy" than when he went in:

In 2009 it became obvious -- for American diplomats anyway -- that Washington was in a unique position to exploit the fact that so many Silicon Valley companies were uncontested leaders in so many markets and that so much civic and political activism was emerging in those digital spaces. In 2010 American diplomats squandered such opportunities by unnecessarily politicizing this space, alerting their very opponents of the political uses to which the Internet can be put (e.g. making contact with Twitter during the protests in Iran -- which I take to be the worst possible intervention into digital matters by the U.S. government ever). In 2011, we'll be seeing all sorts of pushback against the very Silicon Valley companies that were previously thought to be largely unpolitical market leaders. Everyone was fine with Google being the most popular search engine in their country until Washington began acting as if Google's market leadership may also be politically expedient (which, of course, it's not -- but claiming otherwise makes for great newspaper copy).

Now, Google's not the first company to rally behind a U.S. foreign policy that would also just so happen to help its business prospects in places where it sees viable markets and projects. Not by a long shot. But Evgeny picks up on something relevant and, I think, quite real. Leave aside, for a second, the quite justifiable argument that an American foreign policy apparatus that ignored the Internet and all that it entails would be dumb, slow, and disadvantaged. But you see Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her allies inside State embracing the political idea of global "Internet freedom," and doing it with Google's backing (at least for the time being -- they've been known to change their minds), while at the same flying in American tech company delegations to Baghdad, Bogota, and Damascus that have to, in even slight cynical minds, raise the specter of American profiteering. That's not a completely untenable dynamic, but does require some sort of theory of practice for digital diplomacy that we haven't seen yet.

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