Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

[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 http://www.democracyingeorgia.org)

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.

News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.

GO

The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.

GO

tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.

GO

Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.

GO

monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.

GO

friday >

In Google Hangout, NYC Mayor de Blasio Talks Tech and Outer Borough Potential

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio followed the lead of President Obama and New York City Council member Ben Kallos Friday by participating in a Google Hangout to help mark his first 100 days in office, in which the conversation focused on expanding access to technology opportunities through education and ensuring that the needs of the so-called "outer boroughs" aren't overlooked. GO

thursday >

In Pakistan, A Hypocritical Gov't Ignores Calls To End YouTube Ban

YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan by executive order since September 2012, after the “blasphemous” video Innocence of Muslims started riots in the Middle East. Since then, civil society organizations and Internet rights advocacy groups like Bolo Bhi and Bytes for All have been working to lift the ban. Last August the return of YouTube seemed imminent—the then-new IT Minister Anusha Rehman spoke optimistically and her party, which had won the majority a few months before, was said to be “seriously contemplating” ending the ban. And yet since then, Rehman and her party, the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), have done everything in their power to maintain the status quo.

GO

The #NotABugSplat Campaign Aims to Give Drone Operators Pause Before They Strike

In the #NotABugSplat campaign that launched this week, a group of American, French and Pakistani artists sought to raise awareness of the effects of drone strikes by placing a field-sized image of a young girl, orphaned when a drone strike killed her family, in a heavily targeted region of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. Its giant size is visible to those who operate drone strikes as well as in satellite imagery. GO

Boston and Cambridge Move Towards More Open Data

The Boston City Council is now considering an ordinance which would require Boston city agencies and departments to make government data available online using open standards. Boston City Councilor At Large Michelle Wu, who introduced the legislation Wednesday, officially announced her proposal Monday, the same day Boston Mayor Martin Walsh issued an executive order establishing an open data policy under which all city departments are directed to publish appropriate data sets under established accessibility, API and format standards. GO

More