"When a teenage tin toymaker in Togo is connecting to the global marketplace through mobile broadband networks, the world is not changing, the world has changed." Thus, Alec Ross, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senior Advisor for Innovation, began a discussion on digital diplomacy and 21st Century Statecraft at the European Policy Centre in Brussels on June 26, 2012. Ross was telling a story about his friend, who after visiting the country of Togo many times and always purchasing toys from the same stand, was instead encouraged by that vendor to e-mail ahead to place an order.
Ross was joined by Daniel Korski, Special Advisor on Communication to EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, in addressing about 100 European Union (EU) public diplomacy professionals. Ross and Korski emphasized a shift in power from hierarchies and governments to citizens and networks of citizens. This shift has created new challenges, but also new opportunities. Both speakers also touched on social media, emphasizing that a two-way dialogue should be the ultimate goal of social media: the Internet is a place for listening and discussing, not just talking.
As Ross and Korski spoke, I was struck by the presence of both "old" and "new" methods of engagement at the event. We were face-to-face with speakers who were engaging in the ancient art of storytelling to illustrate their points. At the same time, everyone attending the event was using laptops, tablets, or smart phones. A monitor displaying a Twitter timeline appeared behind the speakers, and one could see the flurry of tweets using the hashtag #digdip21. The discussion was lively not only in the room, but also online.
Many of us, even myself, take for granted access to an open Internet and freedom of speech, but the very right to express ourselves online that my colleagues and I enjoyed during the event in Brussels isn't available to everyone today. As people use new technologies to exercise free expression, assembly, and association worldwide, numerous governments seek to deny the rights they enable. Repressive regimes are censoring search results, jailing journalists and activists, and imposing laws that restrict online discourse and access to information. Threats to Internet freedom are growing in number and complexity.
Secretary Clinton has made Internet freedom a top priority. As the Secretary has said, "The right to express one's views, practice one's faith, peacefully assemble with others to pursue political or social change -- these are all rights to which all human beings are entitled, whether they choose to exercise them in a city square or an Internet chat room. And just as we have worked since the last century to secure these rights in the material world, we must work in this century to secure them in cyberspace."
As Ross' story about the vendor in Togo illustrated, the Internet and other digital technologies enable an unprecedented level of communication and connection among individuals. They empower people across the world with the tools to share ideas and information as never before.
Ross and Korski's discussion marked an important milestone in the U.S.-EU dialogue on digital diplomacy, which is gaining importance as we use our partnership to meet new challenges. Western governments need to continue to harness the power of connectivity for good and ensure that people around the world have and maintain access to the open Internet. The State Department, for example, is supporting the development of technologies that allow people to freely exercise rights online while remaining safe. Together, we must ensure that universal human rights that governments are obligated to respect in the offline world are likewise protected online.