Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation in the Office of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has spent the last four years putting tech tools into the hands of diplomats and dissidents. He previously worked on the Obama-Biden Presidential transition team and served on Obama for America's Tech, Media & Telecom Policy Committee. In the run-up to the 2013 DLD conference in Munich Ross, a scheduled speaker, agreed to share some of his insights with Informilo Editor-in-Chief Jennifer L. Schenker.
Q: How do you define 21st-century statecraft?
A: 21st-century statecraft complements traditional foreign policy tools with new tools that leverage the networks, technologies, and demographics of our interconnected world. It means putting new tools in the toolboxes of diplomats so that strategic communication does not remain exclusively something that is done behind podiums with flags flying in the background; it means supporting the development of technologies that people living under dictatorships can use to get around censorship of the Internet; and, it means the creation of an Internet freedom agenda, the purpose of which is to keep the Internet open and not controlled by governments.
Q: How, specifically, is the U.S. State Department helping support the development of technologies that people living under dictatorships can use to get around censorship of the Internet?
A: We have spent about $90 million developing technologies that allow people to freely express themselves on the Internet by getting around government firewalls, staying anonymous and staying safe. I can’t talk about the specific tactics to get technology into the hands of people but when we provide the technology it is very quickly used. One example is “Internet in a suitcase,” which was funded through the New America Foundation. In environments where the Internet is shut down by governments redundant networks can be set up by citizens. This approach is very controversial but in my mind controversial for all the right reasons. It clearly puts the U.S. on the side of citizens and on the side of good.
Q: In the name of security a number of countries are trying different means — including via the International Telecommunication Union — to exert more control over the Internet. Is this why the U.S. did not ratify the World Conference on International Telecommunications treaty in December?
A: When countries use Internet governance in the context of security they often do so as a pretext for undermining free expression and minority rights. The U.S. is not going to be party to any treaty that changes the way the Internet is governed. We are not going to support any treaty that throttles back universal human rights in the name of security.
Q: Has the U.S. State Department gone far enough down the social media path? There was recently some controversy around a memo that talked about a two-day approval time on communications. What’s the story?
A: In the current situation the State Department has the right to review sensitive communications for 30 days. We are reducing that 30 days to two days but that doesn't mean a two-day review process for every tweet. The two-day rule covers only about one percent of communications. Since I have been in this job the State Department has sent out over 100,000 tweets — we have about 200 accounts. We try to keep the review to a matter of minutes as opposed to hours or days. I’ve never heard of it taking longer than a day.
Q: You have been quoted as saying that the leadership structure of modern political movements looks like the Internet itself and this is both good and bad. Good because it's citizen-centered but bad because it leaves a power gap. What can or should be done about that?
A: There is no magic wand that can be waved to nurture leadership. The citizens that propelled those revolutions often find themselves powerless after the dictator resigns. The networked infrastructure of modern political movements can be very effective but their staying power is often challenged by the lack of inherent leadership within it. This calls for good old-fashioned leadership development. In the absence of leadership development and trusted institutions, revolutions can be hijacked by other forces.
Q: You indicated, during a TEDx talk, that the best way to stimulate economies is to nourish innovation. What, in your mind, does that mean, exactly?
A: In the U.S. and highly-developed economies it means lowering barriers to innovation and entrepreneurship — making sure that regulatory structures are pro-investment and pro-entrepreneur as opposed to pro-bureaucrat. It also means that societies need to recognize the unique capabilities that people in their 20s have in this field. That is part of the secret sauce of Silicon Valley’s success — being 20 does not count against you.
Q: What did building One Economy teach you?
A: It taught me a lot about entrepreneurship. To be successful you have to be single-minded and obsessive. You have to have vision and audacity. You have to tune out critics and wholly believe in your vision and product and not let anything or anybody hold you back. One of the reasons we succeeded is that we were so small and knew so little that we did not know what the barriers to our success were so we just ran right by them.
Q: What were you most proud of accomplishing during your four years as innovation advisor to Hillary Clinton?
A: I am most proud of our having made Internet freedom something that is at the grown-up’s table in foreign policy.
Q: Now that Hilary is due to step down, what’s next for you?
A: I’m figuring that out right now. There are many choices inside and outside of government. Change is inevitable. I’m lucky the choices for me are very good ones.
Q: What message would you like to get across to the participants in the DLD 2013 conference?
A: It is very important for entrepreneurs to not be passive observers to what is happening politically in their countries. It is important for tech companies to begin to flex their muscles in Washington, D.C., in Brussels, and in capitals around the world so that the voices of those creating the industries of the future are shaping the public policies of the future. Too often there are no representatives of the digital community in political debates. The tech community needs to be more aggressive in pressing its case in capitals around the world.