Internet Freedom And U.S. State Department

Host Michele Norris speaks with Alec Ross, a senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They discuss Internet freedom and why it's a top priority for the State Department.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Twitter, Facebook and the Internet, and social media in general have played a significant role in the unrest throughout the Mideast. And so, we're going to spend some time with the man responsible for helping the State Department figure out how to better use technology for diplomacy and development.

He's been called the secretary of State's innovation guru. Officially, Alec Ross is the senior advisor for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And he joins us now in the studio. So glad you could come in.

Mr. ALEC ROSS (Senior Advisor for Innovation, Office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton): Thank you.

NORRIS: During these uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere now, have you been following tweets from people like Sultan Al Qassemi?

Mr. ROSS: Absolutely. It's fascinating to see the degree to which information can be made available in real time, from sources who historically wouldn't have been elevated. So it's not just the network news correspondents who are feeding information, but also people like Sultan Al Qassemi, who we can see live tweeting and sharing with the world what they are seeing happening on the ground in Cairo or Tunis or beyond.

NORRIS: Since the State Department has led the charge within this administration in promoting internet freedom, how is it that the U.S. was caught so off guard when Tunisia and then Egypt ignited with these successive revolutions? Is it possible that our own government is not using social media as well as these other countries are?

Mr. ROSS: Well, I think that attaches too much importance to social media specifically. These were people-based revolutions. You know, I think we need to recognize that technology is just a tool. Now, it was a tool used to very powerful effect in Tunisia and in Egypt. But the technology, the social media, isn't the end unto itself.

NORRIS: Is access to the Internet a fundamental human right?

Mr. ROSS: You know, I don't have a fully formed point of view on that. I do think that the Freedom of Expression, the Freedom of Association, the Freedom of Assembly, we have a framework for universal rights. The Internet itself is the means through which these timeless values and these timeless rights manifest themselves.

It's a communal space and the rights that people have in Times Square, they ought to have in Tahrir Square. And I think that to keep the Internet a free and open platform must be a major foreign policy priority of ours.

NORRIS: For a significant period of time, people in Tahrir Square and elsewhere did not have access to the Internet. What specifically did the State Department do to help people gain or maintain access?

Mr. ROSS: You know, it's - that's a great question. What the Egyptian government did was they took a step that previously was unprecedented. They completely blacked-out the communications networks in their country. And when you do, as what Hillary Clinton called pulled the switch, workarounds are very difficult. And at moments like that, the most important asset you can bring is political leadership.

And that's why Barack Obama, and that's why Hillary Clinton spoke up very forcefully to the Mubarak government and said they had to end the communications blackout. And both of them specifically mentioned social media.

NORRIS: So those little things that can be done technologically, was the U.S. -was the State Department or the U.S. government involved in any way in helping make sure people still had access to the Internet?

Mr. ROSS: You know, we support civil society organizations and technologies the world around, so that activists in any country at times where governments are throttling back access to the Internet, they have tools and they have training to be able to take action. And that was the case in Tunisia and Egypt.

NORRIS: Now, you talked about flipping the switch and the government in Egypt being able to just turn off the Internet. It's interesting because some of that technology is actually provided by U.S. companies. How does the U.S. deal with companies that provide governments or regimes the technology to repress access to the Internet?

Mr. ROSS: So this goes directly to the point that technology itself is value-neutral. It depends on how a government chooses to use these technologies.

NORRIS: But if they use them in questionable, or even nefarious ways, what do you do with that information and that company?

Mr. ROSS: Well, in certain cases, what we do is in countries like Iran and Syria, for example, we have sanctions. I mean, this why we have sanctions in place. There are certain kinds of technologies that can't be sold to Iran. There are certain kinds of technologies that can't be sold in Syria. So people question why we have sanctions, well, you know, this is why we have sanctions sometimes.

We also have to be mindful, too, that these technologies that are sold from the United States aren't just sold from the United States. They can also be purchased from China.

And so we have tough choices to make in certain cases where we cutoff access to the Iranians or the Syrians, they can look East instead of West for their technology. And that's exactly what they do.

NORRIS: Are there not just potentials here but ominous lessons to take from what we've seen in the Mideast and Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, now Yemen and on and on? What is the cautionary tale that will be written coming out of this period?

Mr. ROSS: You know, I think it's too early to say. I think with the benefit of just a few weeks of perspective on what happened in Tunisia and in Egypt, I think we know that technology plays a role as an accelerant.

It makes movement-making that might have previously taken months or years take weeks. It makes weak ties strong. So people who connect on the Internet are more likely to then connect offline in Tunis or in Tahrir Square. And we see how the Internet can distribute leadership. So you don't always need a charismatic figurehead inspiring and motivating the masses.

But beyond that, I think that any future lessons learned are going to have to come with the benefit of real hindsight.

NORRIS: Alec Ross, thank you very much for coming in.

Mr. ROSS: Thank you.

NORRIS: Good to talk to you. Alec Ross is the senior advisor for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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