Social media, public unrest and American foreign policy

Posted on August 24, 2011

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David Cameron set off a media storm when he suggested it might be necessary to block the use of social media should there be a repeat of the London disturbances earlier this month in which looters used BlackBerry Messenger to co-ordinate their activities. This may have just been another case of PR-speak by a political leader trying to reassure a disturbed public and sound as if he is taking control over situations that are fiendishly difficult to control. But if he is serious and signs emerge of attempts to put together concrete proposals, then Cameron should expect to find his government in bilateral talks with America on the issue.

There was a time when it would have been highly unusual for America to ‘interfere’ in the domestic – in particular crime – policies of a key ally. This has changed with the Obama administration. Or more particularly with Hilary Clinton who has made internet freedom a major plank of US foreign policy.

The opponents of curbs such as those inferred by Cameron seek solace from Clinton’s track record on this. She has a pot $30 million to spend on technologies that help foreign Internet users to bypass censorship and has involved herself in conflicts between US Internet companies – Google and Change.org – and foreign governments including China. Clinton has given two major policy speeches on internet freedom in the last year and the State Department has openly condemned nearly every new breach of internet freedoms during the Obama administration.

However, too much optimism that the US will continue to champion the ideal of internet freedom could be misplaced. An interesting article in Foreign Policy highlighted some of domestic issues the US is facing on this including problems Wikileaks posed for the State Department, lobbying by the FBI for expanded surveillance powers over social networking services and plans to give the government power to take down the domain names of ‘rogue’ websites. Only last week, officials in San Francisco did exactly what Cameron is threatening to do – the cut cell phone services denying access to social media by protestors rallying against the shooting of a homeless man.

In both countries, the developments raise issues about the line between valued freedoms and public order. But Clinton’s position is less clear than some like to think. Her speech last February argued that the issue was not whether the internet is a force for liberation or repression, but how well or badly used it is – a matter that is the responsibility of everyone.  For anyone with even a basic understanding of discourse analysis, what is meant by ‘well’, ‘badly’ and ‘responsibly’ is open to interpretation. The issue will be whose interpretation. Clinton added: ‘To maintain an Internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that will guide us, what rules exist and should not exist and why, what behaviours should be encouraged or discouraged and how’. I’m not convinced that America with its declining hegemony has the power to set the terms of international debates on universal rights and freedoms as they did in the post-war period.  But they will try.

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