The Internet Freedom Agenda has similarly backfired. The state of web freedom in countries like China, Iran, and Russia was far from perfect before Clinton's initiative, but at least it was an issue independent of those countries' fraught relations with the United States. Google, Facebook, and Twitter were hardly unabashed defenders of free speech, but they were nevertheless emissaries, however accidentally, of a more open and democratic vision of the Internet. Authoritarian governments didn't treat them as a threat, viewing them largely as places where their citizens chose to check their email, post status updates, and share pasta recipes. Most governments, China being the obvious exception, did not bother to build any barriers to them.
But as the State Department forged closer ties with Silicon Valley, it vastly complicated the tech companies' inadvertent democracy promotion. The department organized private dinners for Internet CEOs and shuttled them around the world as part of "technology delegations." Cohen, who recently left Foggy Bottom to work for Google, called Facebook "one of the most organic tools for democracy promotion the world has ever seen" and famously asked Twitter to delay planned maintenance work to keep the service up and running during Iran's 2009 Green Revolution.
Today, foreign governments see the writing on the virtual wall. Democratic and authoritarian states alike are now seeking "information sovereignty" from American companies, especially those perceived as being in bed with the U.S. government. Internet search, social networking, and even email are increasingly seen as strategic industries that need to be protected from foreign control. Russia is toying with spending $100 million to build a domestic alternative to Google. Iranian authorities are considering a similar idea after banning Gmail last February, and last summer launched their own Facebook clone called Velayatmadaran, named after followers of the velayaat, or supreme leader. Even Turkey, a U.S. ally, has plans to provide a government-run email address to every Turkish citizen to lessen the population's dependence on U.S. providers.
Where the bureaucrats and diplomats who touted the Internet Freedom Agenda went wrong was in thinking that Washington could work with Silicon Valley without people thinking that Silicon Valley was a tool of Washington. They bought into the technologists' view of the Internet as an unbridled, limitless space that connects people without regard to borders or physical constraints. At its best, that remains true, but not when governments get involved.
The Internet is far too valuable to become an agent of Washington's digital diplomats. The idea that the U.S. government can advance the cause of Internet freedom by loudly affirming its commitment to it -- especially when it hypocritically attempts to shut down projects like WikiLeaks -- is delusional. The best way to promote the goals behind the Internet Freedom Agenda may be not to have an agenda at all.