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Stephen Hale

Head of Engagement, Digital Diplomacy, London

The web as a foreign policy issue

Posted 10 March 2010 by Stephen Hale  

You need to be multi-skilled to work in a government digital team these days. We expect members of the digital team in the Foreign Office to be simultaneously expert in the psychology of human computer interaction, international politics, and semantic mark-up code. Some say that there are as many as 47 areas of expertise for government digital teams. I'm handing over my blog today to my colleague Shane Dillon who's been thinking deep thoughts about a 48th - the web as a foreign policy issue. Shane writes:

In the last two years the web has moved from the tech pages to the front pages. Google's decision to pull out of China is just one example. The web matters to businesses and governments. And in western societies some view access to the web as a right on a par with access to drinking water. We have come a long way.

I would argue that we must now treat the web as a foreign policy issue in its own right. By taking the web seriously as a foreign policy concern a state can advance its interests and influence. 

The debate is happening around us anyway - take Hilary Clinton's recent speech on internet freedom. The speech was widely reported, and for some like Daniel Calingaert it did not go far enough.

Eygeny Morozov has made an important contribution to the debate showing that for all the idealism that surrounds the web, it is dictatorships that are using the web effectively against those who would seek greater democracy. Morozov offers an essential realist critique of our understanding of how states use the web. Realism (as a founding paradigm of international politics) tells us that states exist in anarchy - to some extent the web is even more anarchic.

Morozov takes aim at idealists like Clay Shirky who views the web in more idealist terms, arguing that the tools offered by the web can affect social change, like the printing presses of Gutenberg's age.

I am perhaps caricaturing their positions as realism versus idealism but I think this new debate does closely reflect that age old foreign policy debate. Should a foreign policy focusing on the web have a moral position, or instead see the web world for what it really is?  

So what does the web world actually look like?  From its inception, thinking on the the web has provided a great deal of idealistic internationalism - the web not as a country but a virtual space for all to use productively.  But that view is now challenged as we see states attempt to control the web within their own borders, erecting ever larger firewalls and deploying filtering technology to control what their citizens access over the web.

Attempts to control the web by states can present serious human rights issues. And cyber attacks have the potential to cause major disruption to the day to day running of a state. But what else should a foreign policy for the web cover? Some ideas:

- Web freedom - democratic states may want to make the web as free as possible to aid the promotion of democracy.
- Play a part in negotiations that aim to shape the future of the web through international legally binding agreements.  
- Communicate and explain domestic web legislation to a foreign audience.
- Deploy research analysts to study the web in foreign policy terms as you would a state, an idea, or an international organisation. 

Britain has a great tradition in the academic field of International Politics, founding the first department of International Politics in 1919 at the University of Aberystwyth, right up to the British school led by Hedley Bull.  The UK has a chance to make its mark by leading on the issue of the web as a foreign policy issue, backed by a thriving digital culture and exceptional web expertise across UK government.

Stephen Hale
10 March 2010

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Barcamp, or is that #UKGC09?

Posted 04 February 2009 by Stephen Hale  

I'm ashamed to say that I wasn't at the annual UK government web barcamp on Saturday. But my colleague Shane Dillon was there, representing the Foreign Office. This is Shane's account of the day and the sessions he took part in:

Barcamp or should it be called #UKGC09? Such is the influence of Twitter on this  event that by midday #UKGC09 was appearing on Twitters trending topics.  Will a day come when an event can dispense with an official title and just go with their proposed Twitter hashtag? 

Twitter was the subject of a lively talk which drew together three perspectives on how to use Twitter in a corporate environment. The three Twitties (and not in follower number order) were Communities UK , No 10 and Foreign Office.

The talk raised some interesting topics; one I found interesting was the importance of voice for a Twitter channel. Can a corporate Twitter find a voice?  By devolving your Twitter channel to other teams in your organisation you can generate more varied content to tweet. But do you need an editorial voice that receives content and then tweets this in a unique and consistent voice?

A interesting debate developed around whether a corporate Twitter merely broadcasts to an audience instead of building a relationship.  Of course, building relationships, following, tweeting and retweeting takes a lot more effort than just using Twitter to broadcast messages.

What was refreshing was how we each came to use Twitter, not via some grand strategy but as an experiment. Having done the experiment, where to now? Well I sensed a feeling that government can be more ambitious with their use of Twitter. What is refreshing is that Twitter is no longer a nerdy exotic, but a tool to be considered alongside macro blogs and other engagement tools - an important part of the digital engagement jigsaw.

From micro blogs to macro blogs: Julia from  DFID  gave a great talk about her experience of government blogging, and she kindly allowed me to speak a bit about our FCO blogs. Government blogging is thankfully not a uniform effort. Each blog is distinctive, with its own style and audience. But DFID and FCO did coordinate our blogging efforts last year in support of Blog Action Day. There must be other opportunities to coordinate government blogs around a common cause (and not just in central government - some of the most interesting work on digital engagement is coming our of local government (eg Kent and Coventry )

My favourite talk though was that given by Tim Hood from Yoosk which allows users to post questions to politicians and public figures. These are ranked by users and answers are delivered back on Yoosk. Does this bring politicians closer to the people?  Does it give a sense or deliver real participation? The documentary Us Now reflects well on this issue. While Yoosk allows users to rank questions Help a London Park allows users to vote online to choose which parks get a makeover. Democracy brought closer to the people or decisions made by the wisdom of one particular crowd?

Barcamp 09 was a good meeting point of ideas and great for networking.  The format makes it impossible to do everything but the conversation continues. I don't plan to wait until Barcamp 2010 to continue the conversation.

Stephen Hale
04 February 2009

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