Alec Ross on How the Internet Will Shape Open & Closed Societies

We had a great time yesterday with Alec Ross, who came to talk about how connection technologies are shaping societies around the world. He began with the argument that, in the 21st century, the major fault line dividing countries will fall between open and closed societies-- rather than the right-left division that defined the 20th century. He offered a compelling historical perspective on the open-closed divide, going back more than two millennia to contrast the progress and vibrancy seen in societies with open, tolerant attitudes, with the intellectual stagnation of closed societies.

He went on to argue that 2009 was the worst year for the internet that we have seen, as far as openness and freedom of information. Increasingly, states see the internet as a force they can control-- and will create something like a national intranet to filter out unwanted content. Turkey, Australia, Italy and others have all shown hesitation to embrace a free and open internet. While the global network does hold great potential for promoting openness and freedom, some states are becoming increasingly savvy at using the same technologies to stifle freedoms of expression and information.

Ross concluded by saying that the greatest implications in the open vs. closed debate will be in developing countries.  Latin America, Africa and Asia are now determining what the internet will look like in their own countries, and their decisions will determine whether their societies benefit from the opportunities afforded by the global network, or whether their poverty is perpetuated by shutting off freedom of expression.

A video of Ross' talk is here (with a full version, including Simon's intro and the Q&A, coming soon):

I couldn't agree more with Ross, and all I'll add now is an observation that the greatest danger posed by China's censorship may not be domestic, but rather in the example it sets for other countries, particularly in the developing world.  China is offering a whole new model of authoritarianism-- the Chinese government has managed to be economically vibrant and geopolitically successful, without relaxing their firm grip on the country.  As poorer countries set out on a path toward development, China offers an unfortunately compelling model for leaders loath to give up any of their power. I applaud the State Department in their efforts to make an even more compelling case for a free and open internet.