Technology for Internet freedom and innovation at the State Department

A look at the role and goals of the U.S. Secretary of State's innovation advisor.

Alex RossWhat is a day in the life of the U.S. Secretary of State’s senior advisor for innovation like? “Over-scheduled” would be under-billing the pace of his day.

When I met Alec J. Ross in the rare books collection of the State Department’s library, he’d already been up since 5 AM to catch the early train in from Baltimore. Ross is one of a new class of entrepreneurial geeks that arrived in Washington with the new administration, moving from the frenetic pace of advising the Obama campaign to the long, echoing hallways of the State Department in Foggy Bottom. Ross is now applying the entrepreneurial drive and innovative approach that served him well at Teach for America, the Enterprise Foundation and One Economy, to addressing some of the State Department’s greatest challenges, including Internet freedom, human trafficking and civic empowerment abroad.

For those that missed his keynote at the recent Gov 2.0 Expo, it’s embedded below. After the jump, read more on Ross’ role, his perspective on societal change through digital tools, and his strategy for leveraging technology to accomplish the State Department’s goals.

The role of the “Advisor for Innovation”

If the day I met him was representative, Ross’ role at State is a whirlwind of balancing multiple projects, people and constituencies in rapid-fire succession. On that morning, Ross had already met with Anne Marie Slaughter, head of policy planning at the State Department, to build upon the “thought products” they’d been developing together. Later in the day, he’d check in on the progress of an anonymous tip program in Mexico with Peter Dixon, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan that had been seconded to the State Department from the Department of Defense. And after that, Ross would be involved in meetings he couldn’t talk about with me.

“Historically, someone in technology wouldn’t even be in strategic policy discussions,” said Ross. “Today, I have a meeting with our innovation fund, a meeting with the CIO office, including the Secretary of State’s ‘civil society 2.0’ initiative, which is all about how grassroots organizations build digital capacity. Later, I’ll meet with Ambassador Lou De Baca, our ambassador for trafficking in persons.”

Unlike colleagues at the State Department like Philip J. Crowley, Ross spends little to no time in public diplomacy. “Where I think this stuff is most compelling and most effective is when pulled into a toolkit to address long-term policy challenges,” Ross said. “I don’t want a ‘tech strategy,’ per se. I want a nuclear non-proliferation treaty with a tech component, or a global climate change policy with a tech component. Andrew Rasiej says something important on this: ‘Technology is not just a slice of the pie. It’s the pan.’ I’m not trying to create a new new silo.”

“Statecraft 2.0,” despite lofty rhetoric that highlights transparency and public diplomacy initiatives, still needs to preserve a few secrets, given the sensitivity of the information discussed in offices at Foggy Bottom on at embassies around the world. One element of transparency that isn’t likely to emerge soon is a “@SecClinton” account on Twitter or Facebook. Ross was every inch the diplomat in answering whether his boss uses social media. “The Department uses #SecClinton to refer to her on Twitter,” he said. “The Secretary does not personally tweet. I will say that the Secretary is a voracious consumer of information and media across all platform types.”

When asked about his own sizable personal footprint on social media (@AlecJRoss has nearly 285,000 followers on Twitter), Ross is frustrated by the conflation of technology and social media. For one thing, he prefers the term “connection.” For another, there’s a confusion around language.

“When people say technology and mean social media, I have the same reaction as when they say Internet and mean one more broadcast medium,” he said. “Technology is most compelling when it is integrated into challenges that have nothing to do with technology itself. Look at the anonymous tip program in Mexico we’re working on. We’re trying to restore anonymity and accountability to fight against crime by allowing people to submit tips via cellphone. Even people in the lowest income barrios have cellphones and text like crazy. We’re working to craft a program to allow text messages to be scrubbed of personally-identifiable information to be coordinated with Web 2.0.”

Ross highlighted a recent example of technology innovation, which he described at length in his keynote: the development of an SMS shortcode to text donations to Haiti.

“Katie Stanton and her team worked to create a method that raised $30 million for earthquake relief. That’s exciting,” Ross said. “What’s a bigger deal is that we’ve now figured out a mechanism through which large amounts of Americans giving in small increments can contribute to a response for a crisis.” Ross also pointed to the State Department’s work with CrisisCommons, which coordinated a distributed network of volunteers to develop applications and platforms to aid Haiti.

“One of the things about technology is that it takes a top-down world and changes it,” said Ross. “The traditional command and control structure of the 20th Century has a much more tenuous hold on society.”

So where has technology been an ineffective measure? Essentially, anywhere Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs isn’t met, allowed Ross. “One place it’s proven most challenging is in the Congo, where the lack of security has made tech-fueled solutions a challenge. We’re still working on it, but it’s been slow in the face of the security situation,” said Ross. If people don’t have security, in other words, no amount of technological wizardry will fill the gap.

On innovation and Internet freedom

Ross sees many roles for technology in delivering on the State Department’s various missions. “We’re thinking about how we might be able to use technology to shed sunlight on trafficking patterns, for instance,” he said. “We’re considering whether we can predict or transparently map the supply chain for global trafficking. What if we gave NGOs the tools to know a village is being targeted, so that they know who the phony au pairs are?”

Ross travels about a third of his time, including what he describes as a “fair bit of time in the Persian Gulf and Africa,” and given his expressed bent for an active family life outdoors during his weekends, he’s no prototypical tech wonk grown up from the server room. He’s also not a misty-eyed techno-utopian who believes that providing laptops, Internet access and cellphones will transform autocratic kleptocracies into market democracies overnight.

That’s not to say that Ross hasn’t considered what might happen if something akin to that level of change happened. This is the man, after all, who co-authored “A Laptop for Every Child,” which makes a powerful case for ensuring that every American student has a computer.

“A lot of Gov 2.0 tools are great for transparency that allow citizens to become better informed and take actions in their own interest,” said Ross. “These same kinds of tools can be used to empower citizens who have historically been intimidated by cartels, or who are left powerless in the face of bad actors. That can become expressed through the collective pressure that comes through the power of these tools and the ability to name names.”

For some more perspective on that count, see Ross’ participation in a forum with Google’s Eric Schmidt, Columbia’s Tim Wu and The Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows on the Internet and political dissent. The video is embedded below:

Ross steps carefully with respect to the double-edged sword that technology can represent when wielded by regimes with less aspirational motives. “I believe the more connected, the more digitally-enabled, a society becomes, the easier it becomes for people to organize,” he said. “I support efforts to provide people with the tools to access the Internet, including the websites of one’s choosing, and to talk to each other.”

That, broadly articulated, captures the new plank of American foreign policy that Ross’ boss, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, defined in her speech on Internet freedom.

“I push the envelope as much as anyone in government,” said Ross, “but we must be clear-eyed. The same tools that can be used for good, can also be used for ill.

Look at the Iranian government. In the post-election aftermath, we saw dissent has been really organized over social media. Where people would have been afraid about gathering before, they were not after the disputed election.” But what changed in Iran between June 2009 and Feb 2010? On the anniversary of the elections, many people around the world anticipated another series of protests. “That didn’t happen for a variety of reasons,” observed Ross. “One reason is that the government of Iran recognized the power of connection technologies and significantly increased its capacity to infiltrate, monitor and manipulate global communications networks. Those social spaces became much less safe, and a lot of people ended up in jail.”

Should those spaces be created or operated by western tech companies? “I’d would love for it to be the case where local, organic social media platforms were highly used,” said Ross. “It would be great for the U.S. if local social media sites were robust and heavily trafficked.” Why? “We end up recommending America tech companies, which leads to us being accused by foreign companies of using those companies as purveyors of America’s foreign policy interests.”

The challenges of being associated with the United States government aren’t minor for an NGO or aid organizations, or for domestic government entities that venture online. “These organizations all need to make choices about what to do,” said Ross. “And I believe that the private sector companies will make choices that are aligned with their own self interests.”

Google, a company now inextricably involved in the global dialogue on Net freedom, hosted a conversation at its Washington. D.C. offices in April on whether the Internet is stoking democratic change. The discussion is embedded below:

tags: , , ,