State-sponsored freedom? Sami ben Gharbia reinforces our doubts

An important and insightful examination of the relationship between U.S. government-sponsored “Internet freedom” initiatives and the grass-roots Arab-world bloggers and digital activists has been written by Sami ben Gharbia, a Tunisian blogger now based in the Netherlands.

I have never heard of ben Gharbia before this, but have always been concerned about the linkage of Internet freedom goals to U.S. foreign policy and Congressional appropriations of millions of dollars. I have always felt a bit uncomfortable about Internet freedom NGOs, activists and research institutes getting too dependent on US government money. My concerns were first expressed in connection with the Google-China incident. While it is great that companies like Google and Twitter have provided both the tools for free expression activists and some stout, principled resistance to state censorship and surveillance, one must beware of the linkage of major American corporations to U.S. State Department goals and programs.

We are painfully aware of the U.S. government's complete lack of interest in internet freedom when it comes to many aspects of internet governance. The U.S. Commerce Department, as IGP has pointed out many times before, has repeatedly, over a period of more than a decade, refused to make freedom of expression or freedom of any kind one of the recognized principles underlying the ICANN regime. The election of Obama did not alter in any fundamental way the national security establishment's commitment to online surveillance in any way that we can see. And when it comes to matters of cyber-security it is very difficult to distringuish between the pronouncements of U.S. cyber-security czars from those of the Russians or Chinese. The declaration by a new U.S. government that cyberspace is a “strategic national asset” ought to give pause to any entity that accepts money from the U.S. State Department in the name of Internet freedom. These concerns also apply, though with less force given their lack of a global empire, to countries like the Netherlands and Canada.

Ben Gharbia reinforces this sense of hypocrisy by noting how selective the US interest in Internet freedom is: being directed mainly at US rivals China and Iran, and not at Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc. He expresses fears about the subordination of local, grass-roots cyber-activism to the public diplomacy goals of the U.S. government and its world-dominant industries. He exposes the disturbing moral dilemmas that Western-based research institutes must face in collecting and disseminating information about dissident groups and their online social networks: “The most alarming development, in regard to this matter, is to put the knowledge and data gathered in part by global grassroots activists and bloggers, via their collaboration with U.S research centers and NGOs, into the hand of the policy-oriented DC crowd to foster U.S interests or cyberwarfare in the world.”

The danger is that the Internet freedom movement gets co-opted by states and leads to an Internet-age replay of the 1960s-70s Cold War. At that time politics was forced into a choice between defending the Soviet Union and its support for communist-led “national liberation movements” on one side, and on the other an expansive and interventionist U.S. foreign policy, which propped up authoritarian and/or corrupt client regimes for the simple reason that they were strategic bulwarks against communism. Here was the dilemma: there was a real need, in the post-colonial world, for such liberation movements. But there was no place in this world for advocates of national liberation movements who were not communist; no one could resist the ideological squeeze play that forced you into the camp of the Soviets or the US. While of course there were substantive elements to the “communism vs. capitalism/freedom” debate, it eventually become nothing more than a rivalry between two giant states for global domination. And while one could correctly argue that South Korea's dictatorship, which eventually became somewhat democratic, is preferable to the totalitarianism of North Korea, and that the Shah of Iran may not have been as bad as the Mullahs, there is no reason for promoters of freedom to align themselves with either of those forces. But when the movement becomes financially and politically an appendage of one side or the other, it will have to do just that.

In my new book, I try to outline an alternative that can avoid this dilemma – the path of denationalization. This debate is a pertinent reminder of why we must institutionalize governance of the internet as a transnational space, decoupled as much as possible from states.

This is an important article and we encourage everyone to read it: http://samibengharbia.com/2010/09/17/the-internet-freedom-fallacy-and-the-arab-digital-activism/


2 comments

  1. Anonymous

    “why we must institutionalize governance of the internet as a transnational space, decoupled as much as possible from states.”
    Given that your Academic Rose-Colored Glasses approach will never work, an alternative is needed.
    Do you have the capacity to imagine an alternative ? or the tolerance to accept alternatives ?
    If not, you are just like “THEM”

  2. Anonymous

    The USG will support online freedom only as long as it doesn't conflict with their interests. I predict these issues will come to a head over privacy vs. taxation, as the 'net reinvents how money works and enables widespread anonymity and tax avoidance. New funding source for oppressed bloggers: set up a clandestine central bank accessible through Tor!