Just as the Gutenberg press ignited the Renaissance and spread knowledge and books beyond a few religious leaders to the many, mass media won the most important ideological battle of the second half of the last century: the victory of liberal democracy over fascism and communism. The invention of the 20th century equivalents of the printing press— radio, television, and even the Xerox machine—led to an exponential increase in the flow of information to inquisitive populations, making any efforts to control access to ideas and facts less and less possible.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent dissolution of the Warsaw Pact had many causes, of course, but central to it was that the Soviet empire could not control the spread of reliable information to its citizens and thus could not prevent the facade of its worldview from crumbling. Pravda was no longer the truth when technology made it possible for citizens, once limited to state-controlled information, to see, hear, and read information from a multitude of other sources. This was the beauty of radio, to a lesser extent TV, and samizdat distributed throughout the Soviet empire after Xerox reproduction.
Information technology has almost surely had a greater impact on the spread of democracy and freedom than any political leader. It is technology, when combined with the human spirit and natural desire for knowledge, that has given us the greatest explosion of freedom in history.
This brings us to the very modern conflicts between technology and totalitarianism, whose outcomes are not yet certain. Technological innovation has been accelerating, as yesterday’s weak radio signals have been replaced by today’s ubiquitous wireless Internet, powered by search engines that make all information available at a speed that defies the imagination of anybody over 30.
Perhaps the most important diplomatic and ideological battles in the world today do not involve nations struggling over land or resources; or even cultures warring over religion. Rather, they are the tensions caused when the remaining totalitarian regimes on the planet erect barriers to technology and block citizens from gaining access to facts. The biggest flashpoints today are Google vs. China and BlackBerry vs. the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
If Chinese citizens can gain access to the world of Internet search engines without any government filtering out what it deems inappropriate, then the rise of freedom in due course is almost inevitable. If the UAE and Saudi Arabia are prevented from impinging on the communication capacities of citizens who are messaging back and forth, whether about gossip or politics, then the eventual rise of freedom in the UAE and Saudi Arabia is also nearly inevitable. While the use of instant communications after the much-disputed Iranian elections did not topple the mullahs, the power of the medium was not lost on either the Iranian leadership or the rest of the world.
To be sure, all nations have a real and legitimate concern about the use of instant communication technologies by terrorists, and the need for governments to monitor such communications must not be totally ignored. Nuanced answers to this problem will have to be created.
What is unusual about this new reality is that the negotiations that may truly matter are now being conducted not by government officials but by private parties seeking to generate profits and protect market share. While I intend no disrespect to Google, Research In Motion, and their sister companies, it is surely the case that their motives and goals will not necessarily align perfectly with those of our national diplomacy.
What to do about this? How can the U.S. government be involved, formally or informally, to ensure the spread of technologies that will foster freedom in other nations? Can our government argue for such protections when the Patriot Act itself permits government encroachments here? Can we create laws that somehow increase the bargaining power of the Googles of the world in their discussions with China?
Or should our government take no action, safe in the belief that the natural course of technology will be to overrun the momentary success that the foreign governments may achieve?
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered an extraordinarily thoughtful speech on these issues this past January, and the State Department is clearly trying to include social networking technologies in our diplomatic arsenal. Yet it’s not yet obvious how we properly protect and advance the access to new technologies by foreign populations.
These are tough and essential questions that require thought and conversation. But we must never forget the simple truth that private entities that create and disseminate technology will play an enormous role in the success or failure of our diplomacy over the coming years. Indeed, ensuring unfettered access to the Internet and Google may be a better strategy in confronting the Taliban and al-Qaida than the current strategy of counterinsurgency.