June 08, 2011

Foreign Policy Makers Ignore The Internet At Their Own Peril

The way Twitter and Facebook helped this year's Arab revolutions spread from country to country caught most international relations theorists off guard. But Richard Fontaine and Will Rogers aren't most international relations theorists. As a senior fellow and a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, respectively, Fontaine and Rogers laid out their thinking in their new report "Internet Freedom: A Foreign Policy Imperative in the Digital Age."

They advocate a robust embrace of new media, relaxed export controls on technologies that could help countries develop their Internet infrastructure and a free Internet along the lines of the current definition of Net Neutrality.

InnovationNewsDaily recently sat down with Fontaine to discuss how the Internet has changed international relations, why Internet connectivity doesn't necessarily spread democracy and what it will take for policy makers to finally start paying attention to Twitter.

InnovationNewsDaily: Has the Internet really changed how countries and non-governmental organizations, like the UN or a terrorist group, really do business? Or has it merely provided a new stage for the same activities to play out on?

Richard Fontaine: The extension of human activity online is a fundamental transformation of modern times. To not take that into consideration when making decisions about international relations is increasingly anachronistic. We can see in the Middle East that these technologies are being used to organize protests, get information to the outside world, and by regimes to infiltrate dissenting groups.
To some degree it's changing things, because never before did you have the power as an individual to get your ideas out there. We've seen these kinds of transformations in media before, with the printing press and radio, but the barrier to entry is lower than ever before. But there is also an extension into cyberspace of the same kind of political, economic and cultural activities. It's a combination.

InnovationNewsDaily: Did the Internet really cause these Middle Eastern revolutions? It seems like those countries had a number of demographic issues destabilizing them to begin with.

Fontaine: The jury is still out about the precise nature of these effects. For example, and some of this is a matter of interpretation, in Egypt, people organized by Facebook and had these mass protests. Then they shut off the internet, and the protests increased.
Some experts said it showed the power of the Internet, since it mobilized the regular people who used the Internet for communication and business. Others argued that if the protests got larger without the Internet, the Internet couldn't have been a driver. The Internet works well for these flash mob type organizations, but it doesn’t help build political organizations. It might be better for overthrowing a government than installing an opposition with a clear political program.
InnovationNewsDaily: The Internet makes it easier than ever to communicate, but it also makes it easier to track people. Does social networking always make spreading democracy easier, or can it help repressive regimes, too?
Fontaine: There's some nascent evidence that there can be a democratizing effect, and we say that because of what we saw in the Middle East. Both the dissidents and the autocrats seem to be acting on the belief that the Internet spreads democracy. But some of that is local. The way they monitor the Internet is very different in China than it was in Egypt. China has a very nuanced, resource intensive approach to using the Internet for monitoring dissidents. I do think there's going to be this cat and mouse between the autocracies and online dissidents. Increasingly, the autocrats are fighting back, and becoming savvy for using the Internet for their own ends.
For a lot of autocrats, China's method of doing this is the gold standard. China lets enough online activity to satisfy the vast majority of users. The discontent they generate is less than countries that just ban huge portions of the Internet. Autocrats are in this dilemma where they want to censor information relating to political speech, but allow information that contributes to economic success.

InnovationNewsDaily: Why has the US political establishment been so slow to recognize the importance of social networking and the Internet to international relations?

Fontaine: Whenever you attend a meeting of the foreign policy generalists who set U.S. policy, there's always someone who says 'well, my grandson got an iPad and says its great.' Or says 'my son signed me up for Facebook and I don't get it.'
Imagine the times when nuclear weapons negotiations were the big thing. Would anybody come in and say 'I don't really understand how fission works?' Amongst people who don't use this on a regular basis, either because they didn't grow up with it, or are in senior positions and just don't have to use it, there's some resistance. You routinely get the disclaimer that people don't really know what Twitter is. If you don't really know what Twitter is, it's hard to have a view on whether or not a country is going through a Twitter revolution. We need to take this issue out of the realm of specialists and put it into the realm of generalists. And that requires a modicum of baseline knowledge.

InnovationNewsDaily: How do you get those generalists interested in a topic that still seems kind of nerdy, or for kids, even if it has these profound effects?

Fontaine: If Internet censorship gets to the point where it becomes a trade barrier, then dollars are at stake and people will take notice. Take for example the shut-off of the Internet in Egypt, the cost was $19 million a day. Just by the law of averages, some American companies must have lost money because of that. You're talking about the real loss or gain of dollars. That puts this issue in a more tangible framework, and makes it easier to promote Internet freedom. If all of a sudden you're sitting across from "country X" with a trade agreement that censorship violates, and could lead to World Trade Organization arbitration, then people pay atten