John Kerry: A digital dictator?

Erik Telford President, Franklin Center
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Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments last week, that “this little thing called the Internet … makes it much harder to govern,” left him in the unfortunate company of many dictators and authoritarian leaders. While this smacks of hypocrisy coming from an administration that was swept into the White House leveraging the internet as a source of unprecedented citizen engagement, it also reflects the harsh reality of their policies – once in office – to clamp down on Internet freedom.

Kerry’s remarks, made while addressing State Department personnel in Brazil, painted the Internet, a powerful tool for democracy, in a decidedly negative light. The Secretary claimed that the web “makes it much harder to organize people, much harder to find the common interest.”

Comments like these, coming from America’s top diplomat, are concerning in that they provide cover for governments across the globe who have cracked down on Internet freedom, viewing it as a threat to their authoritarian lock on power. Turkish Prime Minister Recept Tayyip Erdogan — who famously said, “Democracy is like a train. You take it where you have to go, and then you get off” — recently denounced the social media platform Twitter as a “scourge,” “the worst menace to society,” and “the best example of lies,” amid massive citizen protests against the Islamic extremism of his regime.

Kerry’s claim that the Internet makes it harder to govern is more often heard from tyrants and dictators, who have found that free speech hinders a government’s ability to restrict its people’s freedom. No one disputes that social media played a significant role in the Arab Spring, the most monumental democratic movement of this generation. In nations where the state controlled traditional media, citizens took to Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to organize and spread messages of freedom.

This trend started with Iran’s 2009 uprising, which followed the controversial re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and relied so heavily on the Internet that it has been dubbed “the Twitter Revolt.” Three years later, social media played such a central role in bringing down Hosni Mubarak’s regime that the dictator shut down Internet access across all of Egypt in a last-ditch attempt to remain in power.

Kerry’s predecessor as Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, responded to these movements not by sneering at technology but by championing the cause of Internet freedom as a pathway to democracy. Clinton’s State Department asked Twitter to delay its scheduled maintenance during the Iranian protests so that communication among demonstrators would not be disturbed — helping to put a chink in the armor of one of America’s most volatile enemies.

Conversely, authoritarian governments who seek to repress their people tend to clamp down heavily on Internet freedom. China censors web content opposed to the interests of the state, blocking all access to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and heavily policing the microblogs that Chinese citizens use in the absence of these social media platforms. The government routinely jails citizens who use the web to advocate for democracy or accuse officials of corruption. Xi Jinping’s regime may agree with Kerry that the Internet makes it harder to govern and organize people, but that’s hardly the type of validation he should be seeking.

Kerry’s comments are unbecoming of a Secretary of State, who should be using his platform to spread our American ideals of freedom and protected speech to the rest of the world. The irony should not be lost, however, that despite Obama’s rise to power through the force of highly effective online organizing efforts, he has directed his administration to pursue decidedly undemocratic Internet policies once in office. The White House has tried to open the door to censorship by pushing for FCC regulation of the Internet, and has given the NSA free rein to monitor millions of Americans’ emails and web histories.

The Obama administration should be working, both at home and abroad, to preserve the internet as a tool to protect speech and a force for freedom – one that has done more to protect human rights than anything since the advent of the printing press. The Internet should empower citizens to retain and expand their freedoms, not help governments control or repress their people.

Erik Telford is Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and Outreach at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity