A year ago this January, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the stage at Washington's Newseum to tout an idea that her State Department had become very taken with: the Internet's ability to spread freedom and democracy. "We want to put these tools in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights," she told the crowd, drawn from both the buttoned-up Beltway and chronically underdressed Silicon Valley.
Call it the Internet Freedom Agenda: the notion that technology can succeed in opening up the world where offline efforts have failed. That Barack Obama's administration would embrace such an idea was not surprising; the U.S. president was elected in part on the strength of his online organizing and fundraising juggernaut. The 2009 anti-government protests in Iran, Moldova, and China's Xinjiang region -- all abetted to varying degrees by communications technology -- further supported the notion that the Internet was, as Clinton said in her speech, "a critical tool for advancing democracy."
A year later, however, the Internet Freedom Agenda can boast of precious few real accomplishments; if anything, it looks more and more like George W. Bush's lower-tech "Freedom Agenda," his unrealized second-term push for democratization across the broader Middle East. Clinton's effort has certainly generated plenty of positive headlines and gimmicky online competitions, but not much else. In July, the New York Times Magazine lavished almost 5,000 words on a profile of Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, the State Department's digital-diplomacy wunderkinds. But it's hard to say what exactly they succeeded in doing, beyond getting in trouble for tweeting from Syria about how delicious the frappuccinos were. The only big move that the State Department did make was granting $1.5 million to Falun Gong-affiliated technologists based in the United States to help circumvent censorship -- a step that instead angered Falun Gong's numerous supporters in Washington, who had originally asked for $4 million.
Elsewhere, the State Department's enthusiasm for technology has surpassed its understanding of it. Early last year, in an effort to help Iranian dissidents, the U.S. government granted an export license to the company behind Haystack, a privacy-protecting and censorship-circumventing technology then being touted in the media as a revolutionary tool for Internet freedom. But Haystack proved to be poorly designed and massively insecure in its early tests in Iran, putting its users -- the democracy advocates it was supposed to protect -- in even greater danger. It was summarily shut down in September. Since October 2009, the State Department has been working to launch an anonymous SMS tip line to help law-abiding Mexicans share information about drug cartels. Like Haystack, it attracted plenty of laudatory coverage, but it succumbed to (still ongoing) delays when it ran into a predictable problem: Ensuring the anonymity of text messages is not easy anywhere, let alone when dealing with Ciudad Juárez's corrupt police force.
But the Internet Freedom Agenda's woes extend far beyond a few botched projects. The State Department's online democratizing efforts have fallen prey to the same problems that plagued Bush's Freedom Agenda. By aligning themselves with Internet companies and organizations, Clinton's digital diplomats have convinced their enemies abroad that Internet freedom is another Trojan horse for American imperialism.
Clinton went wrong from the outset by violating the first rule of promoting Internet freedom: Don't talk about promoting Internet freedom. Her Newseum speech was full of analogies to the Berlin Wall and praise for Twitter revolutions -- vocabulary straight out of the Bush handbook. To governments already nervous about a wired citizenry, this sounded less like freedom of the Internet than freedom via the Internet: not just a call for free speech online, but a bid to overthrow them by way of cyberspace.
The lessons of the first Freedom Agenda should have been instructive. After youth-movement-driven "color revolutions" swept Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan from 2003 to 2005, Bush openly bragged about his support for such groups and vowed to help the new pro-democracy wave go global. The backlash was immediate. Countries like Russia, which had previously been relatively blasé about such activism, panicked, blocking foreign funding to civil society groups and NGOs and creating their own pro-government youth movements and civil society organizations. The end result in many countries was a net loss for democracy and freedom.