Turn U.S. Embassies Into Ambassadors for the Internet

On YouTube (s goog) on Jan. 28, President Obama addressed the shut-off of the Internet in Egypt, saying, “There are certain core values that we believe as Americans are universal: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking and other mechanisms to communicate their concerns; and that is no less true in the Arab world than it is in the United States.” As we have seen with the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, open access to the Internet is increasingly perceived as a universal human right.

The United States Congress allocated $30 million to the State Department in the 2010 budget to advance Internet freedom; these funds, as yet unspent, are an opportunity to make an immediate impact. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her remarks last year on Internet freedom, argued: “We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” She articulated her belief that the Internet is central to advancing the values of democracy, human rights, and economic growth, while fighting climate change and awareness of global disease epidemics. However, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) will argue today that Secretary Clinton’s speech has received scant follow-up. There is much opportunity to still promote the cause of Internet freedom and openness, and we can start by wiring the spaces around our embassies, consulates, and American Centers to belie the image of a closed “Fortress America.”

From the outside, most U.S. embassies project an image that is less about openness and more about an impenetrable American Fortress, epitomizing the real tension between diplomacy and security. If you stand at the Massoud Circle, north of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, you’ll see security guards, coils of barbed wire, concrete walls, and six-foot sandbags that completely separate the Americans living within from the energy and daily life of Kabul itself. But this approach is not limited to countries where American troops are fighting. In London, for instance, the soon-to-be built, $1 billion U.S. Embassy will have a moat surrounding it.

However, some U.S. diplomatic missions have deliberately chosen to cultivate an image more like a cozy Internet cafe. In Mongolia, the U.S. embassy reports it receives more than 11,000 visitors who use the Internet access they provide each year in the American Cultural Information Center In New Delhi, the embassy-sponsored American Library provides 40 Wi-Fi connections in a recently refurbished room. These efforts are a good start, but they face challenges. Usage is constrained by opening hours, and for any U.S.-sponsored space, security is a considerable burden for users.

With over 550 American Centers, Binational Centers, American Presence Posts, and American Corners in over 60 countries — in addition to our embassies and consulates — diplomatic Internet holds great potential. It’s time to get creative. President Obama and Secretary Clinton are serious about upholding the notion of global Internet freedom.

Here’s one idea for how to make the impression of U.S. diplomatic missions more useful and welcoming: Provide open, wireless Internet access around U.S.-controlled spaces, especially in countries where Internet access is low. Since 71.3 percent of the world is non-wired, this is a remarkable opportunity to reconfigure America’s image abroad.

Travelers to less-developed countries know how central Internet cafés are in cultural life; providing open Internet is an unprecedented opportunity to manifest one of America’s core values overseas. Ambassador Philip Verveer, U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy, speculated in March 2010 that U.S. government efforts supporting the open Internet “could be employed [by foreign governments] as a pretext or as an excuse for undertaking public policy activities that we would disagree with pretty profoundly” and thus provide cover for illiberal countries to regulate Internet access. How better to puncture attempts to misrepresent domestic U.S. policy aimed at ensuring an open Internet with an act that attests to how strongly we believe in it?

We can provide the Internet beyond spaces we need to secure for diplomatic protection, much further than the 100 yards outside the embassy walls. Wi-Fi routers tuned to locally authorized frequencies could be provided to nearby residents and businesses, which would be paid a small fee each month for keeping them switched on. These would be linked together in an open mesh network and could use embassy backhaul bandwidth for free. This arrangement would extend a fast network and its hosted American content a great distance away from the embassies, consulates, or outreach platforms. The network information passing through a U.S. mission’s Wi-Fi network would be kept physically separate from the internal systems and therefore would add no new security risks. (Café owners could still charge for Internet access, supplementing their income and strengthening the local economy.)

For various legal and security reasons, this is unlikely to be possible for every U.S. diplomatic mission abroad, but it’s an ideal to strive for. A modest and encouraging experiment along these lines has been implemented in Montenegro, where the embassy worked with a local Internet provide to build five hotspots for the citizens of Pljevlja, a small town of 21,000 people. The experiment wasn’t based on mesh technology nor did it use embassy backhaul, but it demonstrates the demand for, and value of, free Internet access. Imagine if we could extend such innovation not just to Pljevlja, but to Algiers, Sana’a, and Minsk.

Bringing freedom of speech and access to information could considerably change the perception of the United States in countries where such an opportunity exists. When another Head of State, like Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, seeks to throw the kill-switch on his country’s Internet, he or she may not be as effective in limiting communications. Imagine if foreign citizens knew that cafés and public areas near American-controlled spaces consistently had reliable, fast, open Internet: It would project a very different image than the hardened walls (and moats) that engulf Fortress America, and more accurately reflect our core values.

Katherine Brown and Tom Glaisyer are Ph.D. candidates in communications at Columbia University and were 2009 New Ideas Fund fellows. Glaisyer is currently a Knight Media Policy fellow at the New America Foundation and Brown is an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project.

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