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 said.
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.