Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Wall of America

Evidently the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the organization that controls US-owned media broadcasters like Voice of America and al Hurra) has begun using Facebook and other social media sites to extend their audience reach in "repressive countries." (Thanks to professor and blogger extraordinaire Craig Hayden for the link.) From the article:
"Facebook is blowing up in Indonesia, said Rebecca McMenamin, the new media director of the International Broadcasting Bureau, so the Voice of America set up a Facebook page for its Indonesian service that’s now got 278,000 Likes and counting. In Iran, Radio Farda, the Persian-language branch of Radio Free Liberty/Free Europe, has been uploading photos and videos of the past few days’ protests in Iran and sharing them on Facebook and Twitter, said Golnaz Esfandiari, who edits the service’s Persian Letters blog."

To some extent, this reminds me of Slate's occasional updates from Barack Obama's facebook feed ("VOA tags Iranian dissidents in a photo: [mass uprising]." "Iranian government gives Iranian dissidents a gift: [incarceration].") but I definitely support free speech, public diplomacy and the use of multiple platforms to spread the message, so at first blush, I like the sound of this--even if my doubts about Facebook are well documented.

If Secretary of State Clinton has similar doubts, she tends to downplay them in speeches on the importance of Internet freedom, like the one she delivered yesterday. In fact, I think she addressed some of those doubts very nicely. From the speech:

"What happened in Egypt and what happened in Iran, which this week is once again using violence against protesters seeking basic freedoms, was about a great deal more than the internet. In each case, people protested because of deep frustrations with the political and economic conditions of their lives. They stood and marched and chanted and the authorities tracked and blocked and arrested them. The internet did not do any of those things; people did. In both of these countries, the ways that citizens and the authorities used the internet reflected the power of connection technologies on the one hand as an accelerant of political, social, and economic change, and on the other hand as a means to stifle or extinguish that change.
There is a debate currently underway in some circles about whether the internet is a force for liberation or repression. But I think that debate is largely beside the point. Egypt isn’t inspiring people because they communicated using Twitter. It is inspiring because people came together and persisted in demanding a better future. Iran isn’t awful because the authorities used Facebook to shadow and capture members of the opposition. Iran is awful because it is a government that routinely violates the rights of its people."

Clinton addresses the challenges of striking a balance between liberty and security, transparency and confidentiality, free expression and civility, concluding that achieving that balance and protecting Internet freedom is one of the great challenges of our time.

Inspiring words, but for the record, I'm not entirely sure that the debate about the Internet's use is entirely beside the point. The fact is that the Internet can be used for both liberation and repression, and while I believe Clinton is right to encourage greater Internet freedom for all, I think it would be foolish to press ahead without acknowledging and preparing for its negative applications. 

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