The Illiberal Consequences of U.S. Government Investments in Liberation Technology

Sunday’s New York Times carried a fascinating story on secretive U.S. Government programs to help activists in authoritarian regimes build digital and cellular communications networks outside their governments’ reach. Drawing on interviews, diplomatic cables, and planning documents, James Glanz and John Markoff describe projects using millions of dollars of U.S. funding “to deploy ‘shadow’ Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.” The projects discussed in the article range from efforts to build independent cellular networks that governments in Iran, Libya, and Syria cannot shut down to a so-called “Internet in a suitcase” that “could be secreted across a border and quickly set up to allow wireless communication over a wide area with a link to the global Internet.” In all, the U.S. Department of State is expected to spend roughly $70 million on these kinds of projects by the end of 2011, the Times reports.

According to the Obama administration, these programs are meant to promote freedom of speech for its own sake and are not specifically intended to foment revolutions or regime change. “We see more and more people around the globe using the Internet, mobile phones and other technologies to make their voices heard as they protest against injustice and seek to realize their aspirations,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told The New York Times in an e-mail response to their query about these programs. “There is a historic opportunity to effect positive change, change America supports,” she said. “So we’re focused on helping them do that, on helping them talk to each other, to their communities, to their governments and to the world.”

In a simple world, these programs might be uncontroversial. By funding the development and distribution of communications hardware and software, the U.S. Government is not explicitly calling for the reform or overthrow of any other country’s government. The projects in question involve technology, not content; they deal in media, not messages. Meanwhile, most of the world’s governments–including China, Iran, and Syria but not North Korea and Saudi Arabia–have already committed themselves to protecting their citizens’ right to freedom of expression by signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a global treaty regime that was ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966 and entered into force in 1976. [See this U.N. web page for a complete list of signatories.] Article 19, Part 2 of that covenant states that, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” If a government has already signed a pact recognizing its citizens’ right to communicate freely, then foreign-sponsored programs in support of freer communication should be uncontroversial–right?

The problem with this ingenuous take is that these programs don’t happen in a political vacuum. For starters, the countries these programs apparently target are under authoritarian rule, and free expression is inherently threatening to authoritarian regimes. Autocrats (rightly) view organized political opposition as a threat to their power, and uncensored communication facilitates anti-government organization. Ipso facto, autocrats (rightly) fear uncensored communication. The programs are also occurring against a backdrop of the U.S. Government’s longstanding and explicit commitment to democracy promotion. When American presidents routinely reaffirm that the U.S.A. wants to see democratic governments in all parts of the world, it is more difficult to sustain the narrow distinction between promoting civil rights and promoting democracy in cases where the former might lead to the latter.

Under these circumstances, it is incredulous to claim that these programs do not threaten, and are not intended to threaten, the authority of governments in targeted countries. The fact that these programs are being conducted in semi-secrecy suggests that the U.S. Government understands this point. I have zero inside knowledge of these programs, but I presume that the U.S. Government officials who make the decisions to fund these programs comprehend all of these nuances. Diplomacy demands that they be coy, but surely they are aware of the programs’ revolutionary potential, and I would imagine that potential to be one of the reasons the programs get funded.

What worries me is that those well-intentioned officials may not have thought through how modest support for activists in authoritarian regimes might backfire. In a paper I presented at an academic conference a few years ago, I used game theory to explore the conditions under which authoritarian rulers might expand civil liberties in spite of the attendant threats to their power in an effort to reduce government expenses and accelerate economic growth. The formal model in that paper suggested that, other things being equal, autocrats are most likely to liberalize when political opponents pose either a grave threat or a minimal threat to their power. When would-be rivals pose a moderate threat, autocrats will feel compelled to keep the screws turned tight to prevent those rivals from gaining the strength that could transform them into a formidable foe. In this situation, the risks of liberalization will often outweigh the potential benefits.

If foreign governments reliably provided enough support to budding opposition movements to enable those movements to overwhelm autocrats’ defenses, we might expect injections of foreign support to spur autocrats to liberalize before they get toppled. As long as foreign contributions fall short of those heights, however–and they nearly always do–autocrats have strong incentives to respond to those interventions by clamping down, not opening up. This problem may be exacerbated by a substitution effect, whereby activists choose to invest less of their own time and money in overcoming barriers to communication because they expect foreign interventions to solve those problems. In other words, the chief outcomes we would expect to see from foreign support for popular uprisings would be more repression, not less, and weaker prospects for a transition to democracy.

I think we’ve seen evidence of this kind of backlash in the latter half of the 2000s in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, where some authoritarian governments reacted to successful “color revolutions” in Yugoslavia, Georgia, and Ukraine by imposing tight restrictions on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive funding from foreign governments. [See NGO Law Monitor country reports at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law for helpful summaries of these laws.] I don’t mean to suggest that those countries would surely have democratized if only the United States and Europe hadn’t funded programs aimed at boosting NGOs there. I do think it’s plausible that human-rights and democracy advocates in those countries would have been no weaker, and their governments somewhat more likely to relax restrictions on civil liberties, in the absence of foreign interventions aimed at promoting activities those governments see as threats to their power.

In short, I think it’s a bad idea for the U.S. Government to be funding many of the projects described in The New York Times story. The intentions are good, but foreign-government support for these projects runs a serious risk of provoking a counterproductive backlash. Digital and cellular communications technologies are spreading fine on their own, and I suspect that the marginal contributions to those processes the U.S. Government may achieve with these clandestine programs are going to be outweighed by the paranoia and aggression they will provoke in targeted regimes.

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