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Alec Ross on Internet Freedom at Princeton CITP

Alec Ross, Hillary Clinton’s senior advisor for innovation and advocate for “21st century statecraft” is the opening speaker at Princeton University’s CITP’s conference on Internet Security and Internet Freedom. In introducing him, Steve Schultze notes that Ross has noted that “if Paul Revere were riding now, he would have tweeted,” rather than yelling out his message. Schultze points out that this was a wise choice: “If he used Google Buzz, he might have inadvertently revealed the identity of the Sons of Liberty.”

Ross is the co-founder of digital divide organization One Economy and now serves as the resident “tech guru” in Hillary Clinton’s state department. Generously acknowledging that some of the best thinking about internet freedom is being done by people at Princeton like Rebecca MacKinnon, Alec says he’s interested in looking at the big picture rather than offering specific policy prescriptions.

And by big picture, Alec means loking back to Egyptian civilization to consider the history of conflicts between open and closed states. He argues that “the 20th century marked by conflict between left and right, while the 21st century will be marked by conflict between open and closed.” In 3rd century BC in Alexandria, a society that was open to dissent and religious pluralism produced innovations in geometry and anatomy, and created a conducive working environment for scholars like Euclid and Archimedes. Five hundred years later, when Roman emperor Caracalla visited the city and found himself parodied in visual satire, he closed the society in a dramatic fashion, killing 20,000 young men (those of arms-bearing age and younger). That closure of society was a precursor of the “dark ages” under the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.

During the European dark ages, we saw a flourishing of scholarship in Baghdad, the Islamic Golden Age, enabled by the Koranic injunction (which Ross repeats, for emphasis): “The ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr.”

The dark ages were the product of intelelctual and spiritual hegemony caused by control of access to text. Control of books, including the Bible, were the source of intellectual and political hegemony, until the invention of the printing press. The rise of the press coincided with the inquest of Gallileo, the “last gasp of a closed theocracy.”

Fast forwarding to today, Ross terms 2009 “a bad year for internet freedom,” perhaps the worst on record. From the closure of the Internet in Uighur regions of China to the crackdown on online dissent in Iran after the Green Movement demonstrations, we’ve seen internet freedom move backwards. In the face of this environment, Secretary Clinton is articulating an agenda that’s moving the idea of a single, connected, unfragmented internet from the periphery of policy issues to the very center of the conversation.

Ross urges us to reject a narrative of internet freedom that centers solely on “one country, one company, one strategy”: China, Google, and proxies and circumvention. While these topics are “catnip for the press”, the lead to an oversimplified version of the field. Yes, Ross says, we disagree with China on this topic, but we need tofocus on North Africa, the Levant, Australia, the rest of Asia as well. More than anything else, we should focus on nations just coming online in a big way. Many of these nations are “on the fence” – they see the possibility of “turning the internet into an intranet” – as China is doing – and we need to urge them not to go in this dimension.

Yes, Google is deeply involved with issues of internet freedom. But we need to be similarly concerned with blogging spaces that aren’t American, which are native, organic to different countries. And we can’t frame this in terms of American corporate interests versus foreign authoritarian powers – it’s an oversimplification. And we need to cast a wider net for solutions beyond proxy and circumvention technologies. Ross tells us that State is funding, will fund and will increase funding for circumvention tools. But we need a broader set of responses including training, support to grassroots organizations, bloggers, and protecting people who are less technologically savvy. Ross doesn’t see a silver bullet – a technology that “fixes” internet censorship – coming any time soon.

Addressing cyberutopianism, Ross tells us “Nobody believes in the power of the internet more than me.” But we “can’t sprinkle the internet on a problem and expect grow up to be healthy, wealthy and wise.” Instead, we have to recognize that the internet is one piece of a much broader ecosystem. And we need to understand that governments can use these tools for repression – the Iranian government learned very quickly how to turn the internet to their purposes in the wake of the green movement protests.

That complexity aside, Ross believes that demographics are destiny, Youth are demanding digital media and market forces will eventually force the hand of oppressive governments. In a five to fifteen year time horizon, we’ll see a more open internet and more open societies… and this may not always be a smooth and easy transition.

4 thoughts on “Alec Ross on Internet Freedom at Princeton CITP”

  1. wait, are you saying that Alec didn’t mention his entrepreneurial past in a DC basement, his youth in West Virginia, and his vision for the 21st century statecraft, where diplomacy is no longer the privilege of two diplomats sipping tea? Amazing: I like the new talking points on ancient history. Very relevant and shows his past as a history major!

  2. “the 20th century marked by conflict between left and right, while the 21st century will be marked by conflict between open and closed.”

    not sure I agree with that. most of the big “oppressors” in internet freedom today – iran, china, vietnam, etc are fairly “left” (although left vs. right is a tough and complex distinction to make) – big strong state, state-controlled media and economy, collective over individual. but it is hard to apply left and right internationally, it has very different and relative connotations outside of the US.

    i think conflicts have always been and will always be about ideas, left vs. right. open vs closed is simply the mechanism and means through which an idea maintains control or power.

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