Saturday, November 6, 2010

Digital Disruption II: More from Foreign Affairs

Here are a few more key passages from the Foreign Affairs article, "Digital Disruption," by Google's Schmidt and Cohen:

Alliances will have to go far beyond government-to-government contacts, to embrace civic society, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector. Democratic states must recognize that their citizens' use of technology may be a more effective vehicle to promote the values of freedom, equality, and human rights globally than government-led initiatives.

The hardware and software created by private companies in free markets are proving more useful to citizens abroad than state-sponsored assistance or diplomacy. Although it is true that governments and the private sector will continue to wield the most power, any attempts to tackle the political and economic challenges posed by connection technologies will fail without the deep involvement of the other rising powers in this space -- namely, nongovernmental organizations and activists.

The real action in the interconnected estate can be found in cramped offices in Cairo, the living rooms of private homes throughout Latin America, and on the streets of Tehran. From these locations and others, activists and technology geeks are rallying political "flash mobs" that shake repressive governments, building new tools to skirt firewalls and censors, reporting and tweeting the new online journalism, and writing a bill of human rights for the Internet age.

Taken one by one, these efforts may be seen as impractical or insignificant, but together they constitute a meaningful change in the democratic process.


A second and equally large group of developing countries are the "connecting nations" -- places where technological development is still nascent and where both governments and citizens are testing out tools and their potential impact. In these states, connection technologies are not yet sufficiently prevalent to present major opportunities or challenges. Although these states will invariably rise into the ranks of the partially connected, it is too early to determine what this will mean for the relationship among citizens, their governments, and neighboring nations.

Some of these states, such as Cuba, Myanmar (also called Burma), and Yemen, have tried to wall off access to certain technologies entirely. For example, they have confined access to cell phones to the elite; this, however, has led to a communications black market, which is most often used for daily communication but harbors the capacity to foment opposition.

Activists in these states and in their diasporas -- such as those working along Myanmar's border with Thailand -- try daily to break the information blockade. In the short term, the regimes that govern these nations will do their best to maintain monopolies on the tools of communication.

An even larger group of these connecting states can be called "open by default" -- that is, states that are, in principle, open to the import and use of connection technologies but whose governments might periodically introduce restrictive controls, whether fueled by a paranoid elite class, bureaucratic corruption, perceived security threats, or other factors.

These countries, which are found across Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia, are potential agricultural exporters and havens for light industry. For the ruling governments in these states, one imagines that the drive to create sustainable, diverse, and more open economies will often take precedence over fears that opponents armed with cell phones will threaten the regime's survival.

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