The Internet has been called many things over the years, but even its most vocal supporters and critics might have been surprised by the characterization put forward today by U.S. State Department official Alec Ross.
Speaking at the Activate Summit in London, Ross — senior adviser on innovation to secretary of state Hillary Clinton — claimed it was “the Che Guevara of the 21st century”. He suggested that there was a common thread between Cuba’s famous professional revolutionary and the Internet, since it (like him) had become the world’s premier disruptive political force.
“Dictatorships are now more vulnerable than they have ever been,” he explained, “In part, but not entirely, because of the devolution of power from the nation state to the individual.”
It made for a catchy soundbite, and one which has already gotten some attention. But does it tell us anything else?
I suspect that Ross’s comparison was intended to suggest that technology now has the ability to “lead” revolutions, in the way that Guevera did, and by doing so upset the order of things. While the role of individual tools such as Facebook and Twitter in the recent uprisings across the Middle East had been overblown, he said, social networks did allow ordinary people to organize and encourage popular resistance movements.
“They devolve power from the nation state — from governments and large institutions — to individuals and small institutions,” he added. “The over-arching pattern is the redistribution of power from governments and large institutions to people and small institutions.”
Yet it’s a complicated comparison. Depending on where you stand, Che is either a symbol of resistance to authority (which is why his face is plastered across the walls of student dorm rooms around the world) or an icon who represents dangerous threats to security. The Argentinian-born revolutionary was, after all, considered an enemy of the United States, with American intelligence officers pivotal in helping to hunt him down to the point where he was caught and executed in Bolivia in 1967.
Today, Ross has helped Hillary Clinton adopt a strong position on internet freedom, with powerful speeches and strong words against censorship. But even when it’s the network that’s encouraging rebellion, the complex relationship with those who challenge authority still cuts both ways. After all, when Wikileaks publishes diplomatic cables, or when members of leaderless hacking collectives voice their displeasure — the same administration that champions Internet freedom reacts by shutting down. The doors close, the protests are labeled a crime, and those who (by Ross’s characterization) have been swept up by the network’s power, such as private Bradley Manning, are thrown into the brig.
It’s not entirely clear to me what Ross meant, but there’s certainly a contradiction at the heart of it.
Today we tend to see a fairly straightforward binary between repressive regimes that fear technology and try to suppress it, and the revolutionary or dissenting movements who use the network to voice their anger. And in the West, for Clinton and the White House, that’s great as long as it’s happening in a way we’re comfortable with. Yet it’s not necessarily far removed from the activities of Anonymous or Lulzsec or other impersonal protests.
The truth is that the Internet may destabilize the establishment even more — or more effectively — than Che Guevara ever did, because, in the end, and no matter how the authorities paint it, there’s no indication that the leaderless turmoil that the Internet can promote will stop at the border.