In the wake of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and social media-aided protests across the Middle East, the State Department has announced a new policy on Internet freedom. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech is set for today. She’s expected to talk about social networks and funding for technologies that would allow people to circumvent policies put in place by repressive governments to curb dissent and organizing on the Internet.
The way the policy could shake out is far from clear. The State Department has in the past been criticized for funding technologies to get around firewalls that resulted in users being more easily tracked by the government. The department has been wary of funding the most popular such technology, which was created by Falun Gong, a group that China characterizes as an evil cult. The group is now getting funding, but the decision took months because of controversy within the State Department about whether it was worth China’s negative reaction.
With this new policy, the State Department is entering new and dangerous territory. The question of whether social media help or harm pushes for democracy is under hot debate. Clay Shirky and Malcolm Gladwell have been trading treatises on the subject for months, and the technology that affect which way the outcome goes change daily. If activists find that social media results in their work being more easily tracked, or worse, detentions or deaths, they presumably will stop using the technologies. But even that is not so clear.
The bottom line, it seems to me, is the resilience and usefulness of the technologies developed. That doesn’t come cheap. So how much is the State Department planning to put on the line?
On a (slightly) related note, the Tucson’s city government is receiving an award today for making good use of the Internet. The Old Pueblo ranked ninth among cities with more than 250,000 residents on the Digital Cities survey.