The revolutionary uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East last year were made possible, in large part, by networked technologies ranging from mobile phones to Twitter. However, the same mobile phone that can be used to connect with idealistic protesters is also one that can be tracked by the government in order to carry out repressions against dissenters. By issuing an executive order making it possible for the U.S. government to impose sanctions against individuals or organizations providing technologies that enable foreign nationals to monitor and oppress their citizens, President Obama made clear that the digital networks that we increasingly take for granted in America are an important bulwark against potential government oppression everywhere.
From the perspective of autocratic regimes everywhere, the most dangerous threat facing a nation now is not a rival state, but a vast, networked organization of anonymous citizens connected by cell phones and communicating via social media. Government censorship was a simpler undertaking when media was not “social.” Now that we live in a hyper-networked age, the only way to combat the threat to authoritarian regimes is to turn the communications networks on their users. In places such as Syria and Iran, tracking cellphone activity, blocking Internet access and monitoring Internet browsing behavior can lead to beatings, murders and — as President Obama reminded us — even genocide. Once you control the social and communications networks of a nation, you have the ability to oppress your citizens.
By choosing the highly symbolic location of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. to announce the executive order, President Obama sought to make clear that his Administration was was firm in its commitment to combat atrocities anywhere in the world — especially those that can lead to genocide. But the issue, in this case, is not black and white.
Within hours of Post reporter Scott Wilson’s article covering Obama’s speech being published online, comments questioning the seemingly janus nature of the administrations approach started to come in. At the same time as America is warning against the use of surveillance technologies in places such as Syria and Iran, the U.S. is engaged in a very real debate about the scope of surveillance and government interference in our own digital lives. The same technologies used by regimes to repress citizens are also the same technologies being developed by Western, democratic nations. Look no further than Great Britain, where The Guardian has been reporting on government plans to implement a “snooping bill” — a highly controversial program of national surveillance.
The U.S. continues to be a role model to the world at the same time that it faces many internal contradictions about its use of surveillance technology. In both war and peace, we live in an era of digital networks, where our ability to participate in these networks provides a certain measure of security. Conversely, the ability of governments to control them through technology provides them a sense of security. We once talked of shutting down an Axis of Evil. We now must talk about shutting down Networks of Evi.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful."
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