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U.S. Innovation Adviser: 'Internet Freedom Is Not A Regime-Change Agenda'

Interview With Alec Ross
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WATCH: Hillary Clinton's senior adviser for innovation, Alec Ross, says an increasingly complex U.S. foreign policy poses a greater challenge than the actual implementation of new technologies.

Alec Ross is U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's senior adviser for innovation -- a job that has him developing new and innovative ways to use technology to promote American diplomatic efforts in everything from ethnic conflicts to the promotion of human rights and free speech. On July 14, Ross sat down with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari in Washington and explained just how he does that.

He also told her that, contrary to what Iranian leaders seem to think, U.S. efforts to safeguard Internet freedom are not aimed at promoting regime change in authoritarian countries like Iran.

RFE/RL: The United States has been pushing for Internet freedom around the world. Do these efforts include U.S. allies; namely Saudi Arabia, which is considered an enemy of the Internet by rights groups, or Bahrain, where recently a prominent blogger was sentenced to 15 years in prison?

Alec Ross: There are 195 countries on Planet Earth. The focus of the State Department is on 194 of them. Our Internet-freedom agenda is focused on 194 countries, so when we develop tools, when we develop policies, it's not narrow casted to one, two, three, 30 or 100 countries, it's developed globally. So we have one Internet-freedom policy and it applies globally.

RFE/RL: So it applies to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain? Does the U.S. raise these issues with the leaders of those countries?

Ross: It is part of the normal course of our diplomacy that whenever a country seeks to restrict its citizens' universal rights, the United States engages; we engage publicly, we engage privately. The president spoke in a sweeping speech recently here at the State Department about Bahrain. He spoke specifically about how important it was that the Bahrain government respects its citizens' universal rights. So yes, whenever any country significantly breaches what we believe to be longstanding universal rights, the United States speaks up.

Interview With Alec Ross
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WATCH: Alec Ross gives his take on Iran's reaction to the United States' Internet-freedom policies.

RFE/RL: Much of the U.S. efforts appear to target countries such as Iran. For example Tehran seems to believe the "Internet in a Suitcase" project, which aims at helping activists in repressive countries access a shadow Internet, is aimed at the Islamic republic. Is the Internet a space where the U.S. is engaged in a soft war with the Islamic Republic?

Ross: I think that Iran's reaction to America's Internet-freedom policies reflects its own recognition that it falls well short of where it ought to be. I think the Iranian government knows that it restricts its citizens' freedoms; therefore it lashes out against us.

As I said earlier, our Internet-freedom policies are focused on every country in the world and the fact that Iran thinks that this is about them, I think, says a lot about the degree to which they're stifling freedoms in their own country. I think it says a lot about the psychology of the government that thinks that so much of this about them.

Interview With Alec Ross
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WATCH: Alec Ross tells RFE/RL what he thinks Internet freedom means.

RFE/RL: Iran accuses the U.S. of providing soft help to activists to bring down the Iranian regime. Is regime change in repressive countries such as Iran, which are considered hostile to the U.S., one of the unstated goals of the U.S.'s Internet-freedom push?

Ross: Absolutely not. Internet freedom is about helping people exercise their universal rights: the freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of the press. It is not a regime-change agenda.

RFE/RL: People brought down the regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Egypt and Tunisia, but the Internet played an important role. Does that figure in your calculations?

Ross: I think that the Internet, connection technologies, did four things in Egypt and Tunisia. No. 1, it accelerated movement making. It took movements that normally would have taken years to build and it built them in the course of weeks and months.

No. 2, it enriched the information environment. So where people previously may have not had access to a lot of information, they were able to because of social media and the Internet.

No. 3, it made weak ties strong. So what was it that brought together the 57-year-old member of the Muslim Brotherhood with the 27-year-old digital hipster who is educated at the Sorbonne; [what] brought them together at Tahrir Square? Some of the connections made online took those very unlike people together and brought them together offline.

And fourth and last, it distributed leadership. If you think about revolutionary heroes of the past -- whether it was Lech Walesa in Poland or Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic or Nelson Mandela in South Africa -- we don't see those kinds of figures in these revolutions taking place in the Middle East right now and that is in part because the Internet has distributed leadership.

So certainly the Internet and connection technologies have played a role of significant consequence in the Middle East unrest, though I think at the heart of the unrest are things that have absolutely nothing to do with technology. They have to do with corruption. They have to do with a lack of economic opportunity. They have to do with a lack of democratic participation. The technology itself is just a tool.

RFE/RL: Let's move on to another topic -- the use of new media by the U.S., which is relatively new and you've been very much involved in it. What would you say is the greatest achievements the U.S. has had so far in furthering its diplomacy by using social media such as Facebook and Twitter?

Ross: In regimes such as Iran, the government seeks to restrict the information that its citizens can access; [it] sort of acts paternalistically towards its citizens. The best achievement of the State Department to this point in terms of its use of social media is it's able to connect and engage with enormous numbers of people who otherwise couldn't connect to [it], particularly in closed information environments.
We have to remember we have one mouth, but two ears. So one of the great things about social media is not just getting the message out but listening to people...

Governments can try as hard as they want to but citizens themselves tend to be more sophisticated than governments when it comes to social media and technology so governments can try, try, try as hard as they want to close down the Internet or to restrict people's ability to connect to the Internet, to the websites of their choosing or to each other but at the end of the day citizens are going to access the content they want on the Internet and, at the State Department, by virtue of recognizing this we're able to communicate with people in ways that weren't previously possible.

I also have to add that we have to remember we have one mouth, but two ears. So one of the great things about social media is not just getting the message out but listening to people and it's not always the case that people are going to be able to sit down with the secretary of state sitting at a mahogany table in some fancy conference room. But social media allows Hillary Clinton and allows America's diplomats to hear from people around the world who we otherwise might not.

RFE/RL: But is it really a conversation, a real dialogue? The Twitter account of the State Department, for example, only puts out press releases without really engaging with anyone. Isn't a one-way conversation?

Ross: That's not true at all; it's not one way at all. These tools, I think, are better for listening than talking. So every day, a couple times a day I pay attention to what people are saying to me on social media.

I'll give one example of what Hillary Clinton did in this respect: after the Mubarak regime fell in Egypt, one of the things that we learned by virtue of listening to Egyptian youth over social media was that Egyptian youth was not happy with us.

They were not happy with us because of decades long support for the Mubarak regime and they had significant questions about the role that they perceived that we played in their unrest movement.

And because we listened, what we did is that we built a partnership with an Egyptian social-media property called where we said to you have total control, you have half an hour of Hillary Clinton live, we don't want to see the questions you ask, make your questions as hard as you want them to be.

Our only requirement is that they come from Egyptian youth and so she took the hardest questions possible from Egyptian youth by virtue of our having listened over social media.