21st century technology requires 21st century diplomacy

“They knew everything about me,” he told Bloomberg. “The people I talked to, the plans, the dates, the stories of other people, every movement, every word I said through Skype. They even knew the password of my Skype account... my computer was arrested before me.”

Cyberspace is as much a battlefield in modern warfare as air, land, or sea, and today’s world leaders need to understand the Internet’s role as a double-edged sword for citizens rising against an oppressive government. Yet some of the world’s leading statesmen simply do not seem to grasp the Internet’s power to foster democracy.

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Secretary of State John Kerry, the United States’ point man in negotiating a solution to the crisis in Syria, recently remarked at a State Department summit in Brazil that “this little thing called the Internet… makes it much harder to govern.” His claims that the web “makes it much harder to organize people, much harder to find the common interest,” should leave advocates for democracy nervous worldwide, as they reveal that even among the leadership of the United States, there remains a fundamental misunderstanding of technology’s role in the democratic movements of the past 4 years.

Social media’s role as the preferred means of communication for protesters can be traced at least as far back as the 2009 Iranian uprising, which the media dubbed as the “Twitter revolt.” Iranian liberals, spurred by the scurrilous re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, used Twitter and other social media platforms to organize protests and quickly alert their fellow citizens to hostile government actions. With the regime successfully censoring all coverage of the protests and cutting off foreign media from the capital, these tweets were the primary source of news for observers outside Tehran.

Since this time, Kerry’s unfortunate claim that “the Internet makes it harder to govern” has been echoed by tyrants throughout the world, while democratic activists have taken to social media to eschew the state-controlled press and spread messages of freedom--most notably in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern states during the Arab Spring. The Internet’s central role in sparking the most significant shift toward democracy since the fall of the Soviet Union should lead Western diplomats to champion the use of technology, not belittle it.

While the deposed regimes in Tunisia and Egypt saw the Internet merely as a threat, Syria’s government understands that it can be used as a weapon as well. Assad’s regime has employed hackers to plant disinformation in the media, penetrate and destroy rebel websites, and in the case of Dr. Karim, monitor protesters’ social media activity to track their whereabouts and preempt their actions. The Internet has been such a valuable asset for Assad that, instead of limiting his people’s access to the web, he’s turned it up, luring rebels into a booby trap by encouraging them to put their information where he can see it.

The Internet is a cornerstone of modern warfare, but it’s also the greatest hope that democracy has in much of the world. Hillary Clinton, Kerry’s predecessor as U.S. Secretary of State, understood Twitter’s role in Iran before Twitter itself, and intervened to prevent the company from temporarily taking Iran offline to perform scheduled maintenance.

The web is a common denominator in democratic uprisings around the world, and diplomats must remain on the cutting edge of technology in order to understand how dictators and rebels alike operate. By promoting Internet freedom as a fundamental human right, protecting web access for those fighting oppressive regimes, and anticipating how tyrants may use technology to suppress their people, world leaders will be able to better respond to future democratic movements.

Telford is senior vice president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.