Between solidarity and “Statecraft”
But these acts of solidarity also smuggle in elements of US foreign policy and commerce, together with a touch of American nationalism. Through international solidarity actions, the lines between the interests of citizens, business, and the state have become dangerously blurred, for instance, with the US administration’s “21st Century Statecraft”, spearheaded by none other than Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton (yes, she likes reminding us which century it is). The US government connections to solidarity actions with Iran first came under public scrutiny in the much-covered delay in Twitter maintenance when the Iran protests were breaking out in June 2009.
The US State Department asked the private company to instate a maintenance delay so that Iranians could continue to use Twitter at Iran’s peak traffic hours (the company denied that the State Department had a hand in their decision to delay maintenance). State connections are also rife around Tor, as the project was an existing one, funded by the US Department of Defense (but also other organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation). More state links emerged on April 13th 2010, when the US Treasury Department gave Heap an exemption from US sanctions to distribute Haystack legally in Iran.
This was part of a wider policy approach that saw a ban lifted on US companies like Google and Microsoft to export their products to Iran in March of the same year under the assumption that this would facilitate the development of Iranian civil society. But this would have little if any effect for Iranian citizens who would likely already be accessing these programs illegally. In Heap’s case, the Haystack project fizzled out quietly as it was later found to be fraught with security holes, thus endangering the very people it was meant to protect.
But while rushing to criticize this US narrative of “democratizing internet diplomacy,” and embracing post-Twitter revolution perspectives, some have ended up highlighting the spirit of American free market entrepreneurship that drives the technology industry that gave birth to the internet as we now know it. When American business competes with government to implicitly take credit for people’s revolutions we are still a far cry from being moved by the power of universal values of humanity. This blatant self-congratulation reminds us that the Twitter revolution narrative is more about a clamoring to claim glory for our own principles, policies, and tools. As one critic declared, “To proclaim a Twitter revolution is almost a form of intellectual colonialism, stealthy and mildly delusional: We project our world, our values, and concerns onto theirs and we shouldn’t.”
At any rate, the cracks in America’s hypocritical internet policies are now receiving increasing attention in ongoing public discussions around US internet policy, and the narrative is shifting in a new direction. Two major issues are dominating: Wikileaks and Net Neutrality. The Net Neutrality debate currently raging in the US involves defending internet access for users, not against despotic leaders but against big business interests.
The Obama administration came to power having promised to instate federal Net Neutrality laws to protect users from broadband operators blocking or prioritizing certain internet content, or charging content providers fees for favorable placement. Despite these claims, in December 2010, President Obama has allowed broadband companies like Google and Verizon to effectively write the FCC regulatory policy meant to protect internet users. Some critics have even made comparisons between the total suppression of the internet during the Egyptian uprising and the damages done by weak Net Neutrality laws.
And questions around US hypocrisy as revealed by its response to Wikileaks have certainly gained much attention internationally. Secretary Clinton made sure to address it in her latest policy speech, bringing up and defending the administration’s condemnation of the Wikileaks organization, which used the internet to widely distribute tens of thousands of leaked documents, including secret diplomatic cables. Since then, what is seen by some as an international manhunt launched by the US government for dissident Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, has raised questions about the US discourse of democracy and freedom of speech in its policy regarding the internet. And this does not even touch on the quieter issue of America’s surveillance of its own citizens though Facebook.
Controlling information dissemination according to political interest and using media as a means of foreign intervention, are not new – certainly not to the US. The issue raises comparisons to the US Federal government’s Cold War use of the external Voice of America radio and TV broadcasts in an anti-Soviet “campaign of truth.” The role of VOA (an organization that also provided funding for the Tor Project) remains problematic today, including in the case of Iran where it is available via satellite and internet despite being banned by the Islamic Republic, and receives criticism on various fronts both inside and outside Iran.
The narrative of hypocritical interventions challenges the US narrative of internet diplomacy, and must be seen within the context of wider US foreign policy. As Morozov put it, “You cannot say, ‘We want to promote internet freedom,’ when every single other branch of the US government wants to promote the opposite.” So, what is new about (the US) using the internet along these same, old lines?
Do your part to lift the pain of sanctions on Iranian families.
Dear Catherine Ashton:
We, the undersigned, are concerned about the effects the implementation of sanctions are having on average Iranians. We are particularly concerned that items that are not sanctioned, such as medication and humanitarian goods are not reaching the people in Iran.
This is a time of great suffering in the region. We want to ensure that we are not further contributing to the suffering because of the denial of access to a payment channel for humanitarian items. We know the intention of the sanctions is to put pressure on Iran’s ruling elite. We worry that this is not the reality.
The brunt of the suffering falls on women and children and the most vulnerable in society. They suffer the consequences in very real ways. They lose their incomes, their homes, and their access to life-saving medication. Some of this suffering can be alleviated by facilitating the seamless implementation of the existing humanitarian exemptions. These include financial transactions related to medications, basic needs, and other items that are currently not sanctioned.
We ask the European Union to create a payment channel to accept transactions from Iran. This channel should be closely scrutinized. This will allow much needed financial transactions for medications and basic needs to take place.
It is crucial at this time when the people of Iran are desperately trying to make their own voices heard that we show we are listening. They went to the polls in an attempt to show their own government that they wanted reform and better relations with the outside world. We need to show we are listening.
Please help to avert a humanitarian disaster. Allow Iranians access to the international banking system to purchase medications and humanitarian goods.