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[Op-Ed] How Obama’s Foreign Policy Can Be Savvier about Tech and Democratization

BY Phil Howard | Tuesday, November 13 2012

600,000 Georgians Rally for Democracy, Sept 2012 (Photo from

The last four years have seen demonstrated dividends for democracy from investments made by the Obama administration. Forging a new foreign policy approach that fosters openness for governments and technology support for democracy advocates has had some positive effects. Recent events in Georgia, Hungary, Myanmar and Venezuela reveal where a tech-savvy democratization strategy should make future investments. Some of the changes in these countries augur well for democracy and others do not. Each offers crucial lessons about the challenges and possibilities for opening up closed regimes. And all reveal that information and technology policy is key to democratization.

Georgia held an election, and the Russian-backed post-Soviet strongman incumbent lost and graciously left office. Myanmar’s military leader went around stating that the move to democracy in his country was irreversible, and backed it up by relaxing media censorship and letting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi travel abroad. Venezuela managed to administer an election, but Hugo Chavez renewed his lease on power by gaming the system through media control. And Hungary hobbled its democracy with new media laws designed to keep the president winning.

For democracy advocates it might seem like the game is a draw: We got two and lost two. Of course, we really should be playing the long game when it comes to democratization. So what are the things we can do to make the most of this fall’s electoral machinations? How can we capitalize on the good outcomes, and recover from the bad ones? Given what has happened in these four countries, what should a tech-savvy American foreign policy look like in the next four years? The answer, at least in part, involves information and media policy.

Modern democratic activists and civic leaders do get formally trained in working with connection technologies. Recently, the US Congress approved $30 million to the US Department of State to train more than 5,000 digital activists around the world, and the Dutch Foreign Ministry has promised another €6 million. Plenty of other Western governments are making the technology-democracy linkage in their international aid programs. Western civic groups increasingly provide tech support to their counterparts overseas, with direct coaching and self-help websites like “How to Set Up a Dial-up Server.” During the Arab Spring, the Alliance of Youth Movements showed people in the West how to support to Egyptian activists. Telecomix kept up the flow of information during the crisis by converging Egyptian ham radio signals to Twitter, running relays that protect user anonymity, or lobbying Vodafone to reopen mobile phone networks in Egypt. The impact is clear: civil society leaders sometimes get a technical edge over regime thugs, while more and more citizens are consuming more and more international news online.

You might think that these four countries are so different, in such different neighborhoods, and at such different levels of economic development that no single foreign policy priority could benefit all of them. You’d be wrong, because the transportable strategy for all four countries—countries that have actually become archetypes for how a country can open up or close down—involves encouraging open Internet access and competitive media environments. These countries are now ideal points of intervention, where a deliberate US response on information policy reform would not only solve problems in those countries. It would send the right signals to the strongmen in neighboring countries.

What To Do
For Georgia, the West needs to publicly reward Saakashvili for his service. He has plenty of critics. But he needs to be whisked out of country and immersed in the global networks of civil society that occupy prominent politicians while both his fans and his critics cool down. Let him teach at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Acknowledge his contribution to Georgia’s democratic transition in the news media, praise his grace, and find ways to supplement his income enough to remove any temptation to meddle or profit from domestic affairs. Demonstrate that senior international political figures have an important role and that good governance in Georgia transcends any particular government. Involve Saakashvili in elections observation missions to other countries, and make a media splash of his post-election role as an international statesmen. It is just possible that other regional strongmen will pick up the message.

For Hungary, the West needs to keep scolding Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his governing Fidesz party for their new draconian media laws. One of the big changes involves the summary dismissal of the country’s Data Protection Commissioner—an official whose independence is mandated by the European Commission—and the creation of a new “National Agency for Data Protection.” Many countries have tried to pressure Hungary, especially the original EU member states who fear that the more recent admits might behave as Hungary has. In Romania and Bulgaria, for example, investigative journalism and media pluralism have been threatened by organized crime, political elites, and business interests. If the Hungarian government successfully makes bad political appointments in the area of information policy, will Romania and Bulgaria be emboldened to do the same? Policy reforms in many other domains can stall if media reforms stall. When the government can shut down news organizations and censor Internet access, sensible domestic conversations about policy options are tough to have.

The West needs to help Myanmar with its information infrastructure and its media policies. Recently, the military junta has begun relaxing Internet censorship. Every part of public infrastructure needs development in Myanmar, but the surest way to make other kinds of reform possible is to get civil society actors, political parties, and journalists online. Indeed the best way to stall reform in all other domains is to keep the information environment closed off.

In Venezuela, the challenge is to continue supporting civic groups, with the combination of direct and indirect financing and technical support that the State Department has currently authorized. Such tech support shows other dictators that when Chavez manipulates the broadcast media for his benefit, we can keep talking with Venezuelans over social media. Significant increases in technical support to the civil society groups in Venezuela—for those who want it—will strengthen their ability to weather the next six years. Journalists who have trouble publishing their investigative work in country need reliable online outlets. Having civic groups develop their own information infrastructure will give them some independence from the government.

President Obama can use his second term to keep Georgia and Myanmar moving in the right direction by pushing and rewarding media and information policy reforms. Georgia needs a media space—digital, print and broadcast—where its new political parties can throw around policy options and compete for public support. Shakasvilli needs a highly publicized reward so that other strongmen can see the safety of responsible exit from political power. This year, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation found no African leader to award their $5 million prize for such graceful exists. Such retirements are so rare that when they happen the retiree needs to be roundly supported. Myanmar needs financial support for digital infrastructure and new media. Obama can also help open up Venezuela and Hungary around by supporting the tech savvy civil society groups in those countries. Hungary needs to be pushed to reform its reforms. Venezuelan civil society needs support for social media.

Maybe we got two and lost two this fall. But democratization is a long game. Making media, information, and technology policy reform a foreign policy priority is our best bet for winning it.

Philip N. Howard is professor of communication, information and international studies at the University of Washington. Currently, he is a fellow at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy. His latest book is Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring. He tweets from @pnhoward.

This post has been corrected to more accurately describe Georgia's former president.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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