21st Century Statecraft

State Department Supporting Social Tech in Pakistan

Pakistan Cell PhoneSecretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Islamabad, and yesterday she announced American support for a new mobile-phone based social network in Pakistan.  The network is called "Humari Awaz," which means "our voice," and it is accessible through a free SMS shortcode on all five mobile networks. Pakistanis will be able to use these networks for purely social ends, or to enhance business, media, agricultural, and other purposes. The US government will pay for the first 24 million text messages sent through Humari Awaz.

As in much of the developing world, Pakistan's 95 million mobile subscriptions vastly outnumber landline or internet connections, so it makes a lot of sense to leverage SMS technology to tie people together.  I'd be curious to hear more about who State is partnering with on this-- particularly who will be operating the back-end-- and how the network will function for users.

But on a less tech-y and more geopolitical note, I'm a big fan of the State Department's continued embrace of "21st Century Statecraft," to advance American interests by using modern technology and encouraging its adoption around the world. Pakistan is the "most dangerous place on earth," and also one of the places most central to American security. Leveraging social technology to help build civil society, improve the economy, and empower Pakistani citizens is a smart, focused use of our power, and initiatives like this may do more to promote American security than any direct US action against al Qaeda's strongholds in Waziristan ever could.

Excellent Rothkopf Piece on Secretary Clinton Gives Nice Shout Out to Alec Ross

In his must-read Washington Post essay reviewing the first few months of Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State, David Rothkopf gives prominent mention to our good friend Alec Ross and his new and important role at State:

At the center of Clinton's brain trust is Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Now head of policy planning at the State Department, Slaughter elaborated on the ideas in Clinton's speech. "We envision getting not just a new group of states around a table, but also building networks, coalitions and partnerships of states and nonstate actors to tackle specific problems," she told me.

"To do that," Slaughter continued, "our diplomats are going to need to have skills that are closer to community organizing than traditional reporting and analysis. New connecting technologies will be vital tools in this kind of diplomacy."

A new team has been brought in to make these changes real. Clinton recruited Alec Ross, one of the leaders of Obama's technology policy team, to the seventh floor of the State Department as her senior adviser for innovation. His mission is to harness new information tools to advance U.S. interests -- a task made easier as the Internet and mobile networks have played starring roles in recent incidents, from Iran to the Uighur uprising in western China to Moldova. Whether through a telecommunications program in Congo to protect women from violence or text messaging to raise money for Pakistani refugees in the Swat Valley, technology has been deployed to reach new audiences.

Alec and I co-wrote a paper together for NDN back in 2007, "A Laptop in Every Backpack," which challenged our leaders to give all of our students access to, and adequate training in, the networks and technology essential to the life success of all the world's children in the 21st century.  For more on this see my post from earlier this year.

More on the State Department and Social Media

The New York Times has a very good account of State and its social media strategy:

The Obama administration says it has tried to avoid words or deeds that could be portrayed as American meddling in Iran’s presidential election and its tumultuous aftermath.

Yet on Monday afternoon, a 27-year-old State Department official, Jared Cohen, e-mailed the social-networking site Twitter with an unusual request: delay scheduled maintenance of its global network, which would have cut off service while Iranians were using Twitter to swap information and inform the outside world about the mushrooming protests around Tehran.

The request, made to a Twitter co-founder, Jack Dorsey, is yet another new-media milestone: the recognition by the United States government that an Internet blogging service that did not exist four years ago has the potential to change history in an ancient Islamic country.

“This was just a call to say: ‘It appears Twitter is playing an important role at a crucial time in Iran. Could you keep it going?’ ” said P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs.

Twitter complied with the request, saying in a blog post on Monday that it put off the upgrade until late Tuesday afternoon — 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in Tehran — because its partners recognized “the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran.” The network was working normally again by Tuesday evening.

The State Department said its request did not amount to meddling. Mr. Cohen, they noted, did not contact Twitter until three days after the vote was held and well after the protests had begun.

“This is completely consistent with our national policy,” Mr. Crowley said. “We are proponents of freedom of expression. Information should be used as a way to promote freedom of expression.”

The episode demonstrates the extent to which the administration views social networking as a new arrow in its diplomatic quiver. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talks regularly about the power of e-diplomacy, particularly in places where the mass media are repressed.

Mr. Cohen, a Stanford University graduate who is the youngest member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, has been working with Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other services to harness their reach for diplomatic initiatives in Iraq and elsewhere.

Last month, he organized a visit to Baghdad by Mr. Dorsey and other executives from Silicon Valley and New York’s equivalent, Silicon Alley. They met with Iraq’s deputy prime minister to discuss how to rebuild the country’s information network and to sell the virtues of Twitter.

Referring to Mir Hussein Moussavi, the main Iranian opposition candidate, Mr. Crowley said, “We watched closely how Moussavi has used Facebook to keep his supporters informed of his activities.”

Tehran has been buzzing with tweets, the posts of Twitter subscribers, sharing news on rallies, police crackdowns on protesters, and analysis of how the White House is responding to the drama.

With the authorities blocking text-messaging on cellphones, Twitter has become a handy alternative for information-hungry Iranians. While Iran has also tried to block Twitter posts, Iranians are skilled at using proxy sites or other methods to circumvent the official barriers.

It is a new political day indeed.

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