Khouri on Clinton's Internet Initiative

Two points  on Rami Khouri's latest column, about US initiatives to encourage internet use and youth etc.

This one I partly disagree with:

But what do young people actually do, or aim to achieve, with the new media? Are the new digital and social media a credible tool for challenging established political orders and bringing about political change in our region?

My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change.

Watching Arab pundits criticize Arab governments, Israel or the United States — common fare on Arab satellite television — is great vicarious satisfaction for ordinary men and women who live in political cultures that deny them serious opportunities for free speech.

Blogging, reading politically racy Web sites, or passing around provocative text messages by cellphone is equally satisfying for many youth. Such activities, though, essentially shift the individual from the realm of participant to the realm of spectator, and transform what would otherwise be an act of political activism — mobilizing, demonstrating or voting — into an act of passive, harmless personal entertainment.

Sure, there might be a lot of passive users of the internet. But when in so many countries the internet is being used to mobilize, spread information and organize, it can hardly be called a passive medium. It draws in an admittedly small number of internet users and turns them into activists and organizers,  And unlike al-Jazeera, no one is paying the bloggers and activists who use the internet to mobilize. It's a substantive improvement over what al-Jazeera does, especially because the internet is not controlled by a government.

The second point is dead on:

One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.

Feeding both the jailer and the prisoner is not a sustainable or sensible policy. I would not be surprised if some wise-guy young Arab soon sends a tweet to Hillary Clinton saying, “you’re either with us, or you’re with the security state.”

This is an awkward and untenable position for any foreign government that wants to promote political activism and pluralism in the Middle East. It damages Western government credibility, leads to no significant changes in our political cultures, and often discredits the local activists who become tarred with the charge of being Western lackeys.

Clinton's Internet Initiative is essentially a substitute — and a poor one at that — for a real policy to deal with authoritarian regimes. As was Obama's Cairo speech and its 16 micro-initiatives. You don't have to invade dictatorships — please! — but you don't have to support them either. Training young people to use the internet is a ridiculous idea — they will do so anyway.  

Better to learn from the largely American success of internet start-ups such as Google: don't be evil. Cut off the funding to dictators, occupiers and regimes that carry out ethnic or religious segregation. Refuse to meet them and give them the recognition they crave. Stop humoring them because of your imperial ambitions in the Middle East — these ambitions are ruinous to America both financially and morally.