Chris Barton 's Opinion

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton: Twitter diplomacy

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'The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak.' - Alex Ross. Photo / Supplied
'The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak.' - Alex Ross. Photo / Supplied

Alec Ross inhabits a world of subtle connotations, a world where sharp distinctions often blur into shades of grey. The senior adviser for innovation to United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton begins by ensuring I am recording him. "I prefer for it to be recorded just because in my line of business sometimes the choice of a specific word has repercussions and specific meanings."

Speaking from Washington DC, Ross' concluding remarks after an hour-long phone interview revisit his dilemma: "We live in a nuanced world. That may make my work occasionally more complicated. And it may put me in the crosshairs for more criticism. But as long as the work we are doing has integrity and is all for the good I'm going to keep doing it."

"Nuanced" crops up several times. Hardly surprising, because Ross - who is visiting New Zealand next week - is a diplomat, albeit one who is in the vanguard of bringing diplomacy into the digital age. Variously known as ediplomacy, 21st century statecraft and twiplomacy, it's yet another example of how the internet changes everything.

Ediplomacy promotes social networking technologies such as Twitter and Facebook to reach out to citizens, companies and others. "I define it as building on traditional forms of diplomacy to account for the technologies, the networks and the demographics of the 21st century," says Ross. "The key role for me is to be an accelerant."

Pouring petrol on an ediplomatic fire smouldering among some 30,000 employees deployed in over 190 countries at the State Department has produced results. "The US State Department has become the world's leading user of ediplomacy," says Fergus Hanson in an analysis by the Lowy Institute in March.

The way Hanson sees it, "State now operates what is effectively a global media empire, reaching a larger direct audience than the paid circulation of the 10 largest US dailies and employing an army of diplomat-journalists to feed its 600-plus platforms." That includes a team of 11 bloggers active in Arabic, Urdu and Somali in the Arab blogosphere, countering online extremism.

But if America is racing ahead - the State Department has its own internal Facebook-like social networking site, Corridor, and an internal Wiki called Diplopedia - elsewhere ediplomacy is struggling to be heard.

What are the barriers to change? "I think a lot of it is rooted in fear and the loss of control," says Ross. "The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak and, as a very practical matter, a lot of government officials covet control." Such people, says Ross, are averse to engaging in the "very messy space" of social media.

While US ediplomatic efforts began in earnest as far back as 2002, Ross says the new momentum has undoubtedly come from Clinton's embrace of the concept. "Hillary Clinton is the godmother of 21st century statecraft," he declares. " Clinton added further muscle to ediplomacy efforts by making internet freedom a flagship US foreign policy goal in a 2010 speech.

For Ross there's not much distinction between the online and offline worlds. In his mind 21st century statecraft is just a continuation of doing things the American way. "Hillary Clinton is America's 67th secretary of state. Our first was Thomas Jefferson who said the only legitimate foundation for government is the will of its people and to preserve its free expression should be our first order," says Ross. "The only thing that has changed is the way in which people can exercise those rights."

The focus on internet freedom is more than words. About US$70 million has been spent in the past two years developing technologies to help activists living under repressive regimes circumvent internet censorship, and to protect websites and blogs from attack. Most are classified, but examples talked about include the "internet in a suitcase", which allows users to build a mobile mesh network that can really can be carried around in a suitcase; and "InTheClear", a mobile phone panic button that allows activists to instantly erase the contacts and messages on their phone and send a warning if they are arrested.

"It's not just about being able to establish connectivity where a government has taken down the networks, or about getting around censorship, it's also about keeping people safe," says Ross. "Governments have the ability to intercept personal communications and geolocate people, so what we try to do is help keep activists safe at the technical level."

But some, like cyber-sceptic Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion, are harshly critical of Clinton's "internet freedom agenda" and the idea that that technology can succeed in opening up the world where offline efforts have failed.

Morozov accuses the State Department of techno-utopianism, pointing out, for example, that Iran's Green Movement "may have simply drowned in its own tweets" and just how active the Iranian government is online. "In the age of the Spinternet, when cheap online propaganda can easily be bought with the help of pro-government bloggers, elucidating what fellow citizens think about the regime may be harder than we thought," wrote Morozov in the Wall Street Journal. "Add to that the growing surveillance capacity of modern authoritarian states - also greatly boosted by information collected through social media and analysed with new and advanced forms of data-mining - and you may begin to understand why the Green Movement faltered."

Without responding specifically to Morosov, Ross vigorously rejects the criticism as a straw man argument promoted by critics of the US government. "I completely agree with the idea that these technologies can be used to oppress people in the same manner in which they can be used to liberate people," he says, pointing that he has also been a harsh critic of companies that sell sophisticated surveillance technology to dictatorships.

"So when people come out and say, 'oh they are being cyber utopian', I'm just like: 'Who the hell is this cyber utopian you're talking about? Will you please introduce me to one?' The only cyber utopians I've ever met are Egyptians and Tunisians who overthrew their government."

Ross concedes there are more "nuanced critiques" involving those who might point out that some US allies have less than exemplary records on internet freedom, and ask how America can be such a grand champion of internet freedom and also be an ally of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. "We have agreements and disagreements with friends and foes alike," says Ross. "Just because we are at odds on the issue of internet freedom doesn't mean we are going to close our embassy."

Morozov argues the State Department's online democratising efforts have fallen prey to the same problems that plagued President George W. Bush's lower-tech "Freedom Agenda," - his unrealised push for democracy across the broader Middle East.

"By aligning themselves with internet companies and organisations, Clinton's digital diplomats have convinced their enemies abroad that internet freedom is another Trojan horse for American imperialism." He says the State Department's forging of closer ties with Silicon Valley - something led largely by Ross - means that repressive regimes now see Google, Facebook and Twitter as tentacles of American foreign policy's reach, putting all users of those internet tools under suspicion. Nancy Scola at TechPresident sees a further problem. Silicon Valley's close relationships with the State Department gives the impression of American contractors being given a leg up by the US government in foreign lands, with insufficient thought to local impact.

"The Internet is far too valuable to become an agent of Washington's digital diplomats," writes Morozov.

"The idea that the US government can advance the cause of internet freedom by loudly affirming its commitment to it - especially when it hypocritically attempts to shut down projects like WikiLeaks - is delusional," writes Morozov.

Ross disagrees, arguing that Wikileaks - an organisation that's transnational and virtual in nature - proves the underlying thesis behind 21st century statecraft: "Virtual organisations can exert power in significant ways." But while Ross is concerned about hyper surveillance, he's not a believer in hyper transparency. "While I come from a community that implicitly embraces tools and organisations that can open up historically closed institutions and processes, that has its limits, and I think WikiLeaks bore that out, "he told Fast Company last year. He has a similar message for the Herald. "Internet freedom doesn't give you the right to traffic in stolen intellectual property," which is how he views WikiLeaks' November 2010 release of over 250,000 classified cables sent to the State Department by its consulates and embassies around the world.

He also doesn't view what WikiLeaks did, in this case, as whistleblowing. "Whistleblowing, as a technical matter, is revealing an act of official wrongdoing," says Ross. "What WikiLeaks revealed was official right doing." It's a bold claim that many would disagree with - including some New Zealanders when they learned about cables that appeared to show vigorous American efforts to influence our copyright laws.

As for getting too cosy with US high tech companies, Ross is unapologetic. "Some people have accused me of building a military industrial complex for the 21st century with Silicon Valley. I don't have that much power." As he points out, the State Department works with the big social media platforms and most of them happen to be American.

It was during Barack Obama's presidential campaign, which Ross joined in 2007, that closer ties with Silicon Valley were forged. Despite having no formal training in technology, Ross was given the job of developing Obama's technology, media and telecommunications strategy. In that role he assigned duties to high-tech titans such as Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, and academics including Stanford law professor Larry Lessig.

"What that means, as a very practical matter, is I'm working with some of my friends and I am completely unapologetic about my friendships. If anything, I'm costing these guys money. It's not like we are giving out contracts."

But Ross says every effort is also made to work with non-American platforms, including social networking site Mixi in Japan, Arab internet services company Maktoob in Jordan and Russian social network service VKontakte.

Ross is not saying, but it would probably be fair to assume that Hillary Clinton's epiphany regarding the power of social media and citizen centred networks came first hand in the 2008 presidential nomination race, when the highly orchestrated Obama campaign significantly outperformed her.

Over the past year and a half Ross has been asked by governments around the world to help them adopt, and adapt to, 21st century statecraft. "A lot of the work that I do is with ambassadorial corps and foreign ministers around the world to simply help them understand the changing nature of geopolitical power because of connectedness."

How does he get them to join the messy domain of social networks? "It's about power. The way I educate our ambassadors about social media is rooting it squarely in the exercise of political power in 2012."

Leading by example, Ross is a prolific user of social media, especially Twitter. How mindful is he about what he says? "I'm probably more careful now than when I started out. Every time I send a tweet it reaches over 300,000 people. Every time I put something on Facebook it reaches over 110,000 people," he says. "With power comes responsibility and so just because we allow our diplomats to communicate openly over these networks; that doesn't give people freedom to be an idiot." He gives similar advice to presidents and prime ministers. "Comport yourself on the internet in the same way in which you would standing behind a podium or meeting your constituents. "

Twitter's 140-character limit makes diplomatic nuance difficult. But the abbreviated art form, in harness with its hashtag, can produce powerfully direct results. Immediately after the Haiti earthquake, James Eberhard of Mobile Accord, working with the State Department, set up the Text Haiti 90999 programme, which raised about US$35 million for the Red Cross in US$10 donations.

Ross' own tweets can seem cryptic, often referring to moments in history: 260 years ago today, Benjamin Franklin made a discovery about electricity by using a kite with a key on it as a lightning rod. As one follower responded: "What's the freaking point of this tweet? Are you working on the Ben Franklin campaign now?"

Ross says the tweets stem from his background as a mediaeval history major and tying what he is working on in science, technology and innovation back to its historic precedents. "I guess what I'm passionate about is helping people understand this technology in the broader arc of history." He says it will be an underlying theme of his address at the Project [r]evolution event in Auckland next week.

Not unexpectedly, Ross clams up when asked about the legal battle to have New Zealand based Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom extradited to the US to face criminal copyright violation charges.

Initially there's a similar response when I ask about New Zealand concerns over the ongoing secret negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, of which Clinton is a strong advocate. "There are alleged leaked documents and I can't confirm their authenticity, so I'm not going to comment on them." But Ross is frank about the US position on intellectual property provisions in trade negotiations. "I'm living in a country that has a certain set of copyright protections that I think are perfectly reasonable for people in other countries to abide by. I do not feel constrained as a lover of freedom and as a massive consumer of content. I do not feel constrained by my country's copyright policies. So people ought not to see monsters under the bed from the United States on intellectual property."

When it's pointed out that much of the problem for New Zealanders stems from the lack of legal avenues to acquire content, and a sense America is undermining New Zealand sovereignty, Ross becomes more nuanced, agreeing that "broadcast era public policies" do not translate well in the digital world. " I hope that the internet companies and the content companies will do more together to help develop the next generation of watermarking technologies and make it easier to get content out there in a way that is lawful but also unencumbered by a lot of bureaucrats."

Shouldn't such issues at the heart of the Trans Pacific Partnership be more openly discussed? "I believe in the default setting for things being open as opposed to closed," says Ross. "But I think there is a sort of cyber utopianism and a cyber naiveté to think that we can put a Microsoft Word document on the web and presume to Wiki a trade agreement."

Perhaps, but keeping the diplomacy of these negotiations behind locked doors is hardly going to engender confidence in the process either. One imagines there will be more leaks. As Ross says, the 21st century a terrible time to be a control freak.

Path to Power

* Born 1971. Grew up near Charleston, West Virginia. Graduated 1994 from Northwestern University near Chicago with B.A. in history. Lives in Baltimore with wife Felicity and three children.

* 1994: Worked as a Teach for America volunteer in Baltimore.

* 1996: Worked for the Enterprise Foundation, which develops affordable housing across the US.

* 2000: Co-founded the non-profit organisation One Economy, which uses technology to help low-income communities. Worked there for eight years, seeing it grow - with donations from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Cisco, Yahoo and AT&T - from a team of four to the world's largest organisation working to bridge the "digital divide" , with programmes on four continents. Wrote A Laptop in Every Backpack with Simon Rosenberg.

* 2007: Joined Barack Obama's presidential campaign, playing a key role in developing Obama's technology, media and telecommunications strategy.

* June 2009: Appointed senior adviser for innovation in the office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In person

Alec Ross will be speaking at The Project [r]evolution, a conference on digital media held by AUT University in partnership with the US Embassy and Social Media NZ. Thursday August 30 and Friday August 31 at AUT University, City Campus. Follow on twitter #projectrevolution. Other speakers include Mashable associate editor Emily Banks and Google Maps inventor Michael T. Jones.


This story has been corrected from an earlier version. Due to an editing error the quote:
"State now operates what is effectively a global media empire, reaching a larger direct audience than the paid circulation of the 10 largest US dailies and employing an army of diplomat-journalists to feed its 600-plus platforms."

was incorrectly attributed to Alec Ross, instead of Fegus Hanson.

- NZ Herald

Chris Barton

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton is a freelance writer with 28 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He's been writing about technology since 1986, was the founding editor of New Zealand PC World and has won numerous media awards, including, in 2009, journalism's top prize, the Wolfson Press Fellowship to Cambridge. He has a Master of Architecture, teaches part time at the Auckland School of Architecture and is an architecture critic, winning, in 2014, the Canon Media Awards Reviewer of the Year.

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