New York – “The
instruction manual is a gateway to civil liberties,” a U.S. State Department
official said during a keynote address here at the Consumer Electronics
Association (CEA) Line Shows event.
Many consumers in authoritarian countries such
as Iran have mastered the use of cellphone and Internet technologies for purely
personal and social uses, but many of them have gone on to apply their newfound
knowledge to organize opposition to their governments, said Jared Cohen of the
department’s policy planning staff.
Cohen cited young people in Iran who used
peer-to-peer Bluetooth communication in crowded bazaars to find parties or
organize book clubs, then applied that capability in a way that “took on
political characteristics.” Iranian youth were “innovating out of necessity,”
and Bluetooth creators were completely unaware of how their technology was
being used, he said.
The policy of the U.S. government, he said, is
to promote a “fundamental human right for people to connect” through Internet
and cellphone technologies, which are eliminating the intermediaries who
previously distributed content and prevented “unlikely leaders from emerging.”
The protests in Iran in June 2009 “helped us
rethink the role of technology companies in civil societies in a totally
different light,” he continued. “Private-sector companies are taking on NGO
(non-governmental organization) characteristics.” Traditional NGOs train their
people “to lead a sustainable movement,” whereas the strength on nontraditional
NGOs is the ability to organize people spontaneously. The U.S. is “working to
build civil societies with traditional and nontraditional organizations,” he
Statecraft in the 21
century is “as
much about building connections as it is about negotiation,” he said. And the
U.S. needs to create a “linkage between the technology industry and the
government” that goes beyond defense to further that goal, he said.