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The Internet, Ignored No More: Morozov's Case Against "Freedom.gov"

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, January 3 2011

Thankfully, Foreign Policy's Evgeny Morozov, a frequent critic of the U.S. State Department's push to advocate in favor of "Internet freedom" around the planet, has boiled down his objections into a concise piece. The gist: it's not just the impression given of American contractors being given a leg up by the U.S. government in foreign lands, with insufficient thought to local impact, in a way that evokes American foreign policy's log history of doing just that (and doing it, it's worth mentioning, in the diplomatic space that as a practical matter exists outside the direct supervision of the other two branches of government). Or, at least, it's not just that.

What's particularly galling is that throwing the weight of the federal government of the United States of America behind the idea of online freedom politicizes the Internet in a way that forces people to take sides:

The Internet Freedom Agenda has similarly backfired. The state of web freedom in countries like China, Iran, and Russia was far from perfect before Clinton's initiative, but at least it was an issue independent of those countries' fraught relations with the United States. Google, Facebook, and Twitter were hardly unabashed defenders of free speech, but they were nevertheless emissaries, however accidentally, of a more open and democratic vision of the Internet. Authoritarian governments didn't treat them as a threat, viewing them largely as places where their citizens chose to check their email, post status updates, and share pasta recipes. Most governments, China being the obvious exception, did not bother to build any barriers to them.

But as the State Department forged closer ties with Silicon Valley, it vastly complicated the tech companies' inadvertent democracy promotion. The department organized private dinners for Internet CEOs and shuttled them around the world as part of "technology delegations." Cohen, who recently left Foggy Bottom to work for Google, called Facebook "one of the most organic tools for democracy promotion the world has ever seen" and famously asked Twitter to delay planned maintenance work to keep the service up and running during Iran's 2009 Green Revolution.

Today, foreign governments see the writing on the virtual wall. Democratic and authoritarian states alike are now seeking "information sovereignty" from American companies, especially those perceived as being in bed with the U.S. government. Internet search, social networking, and even email are increasingly seen as strategic industries that need to be protected from foreign control. 

Countries like China and Iran, of course, make no bones about politicizing the Internet, like the former's blocking of the phrase "empty chair"because it referenced a jailed democracy activist or the latter's shutting down of Internet access just before 2009's presidential election. But you can make the argument that what's gotten the Internet to this fairly robust state is that the U.S. government has acted with extreme restraint, especially given the role that it has traditionally had in mangaging how the Internet runs

But with this new official U.S. posture towards the Internet, that global network of networks starts to look like contested not only at the "margins" -- China, Iran, Russia, to borrow some examples from Morozov -- but right at its very core. The recent dust-up over hosting Wikileaks and attacking companies that opted out of supporting Julian Assange and crew has only made the situation more polarized, as do November's Department of Homeland Security takedowns of domain names. It's not entirely clear from what we've seen of "21st Century Diplomacy" thus far that that's the wisest of battles, or one the U.S. was well-prepared to take on right at the moment.

Well worth a read.