THE BLOG

The I-Factor

08/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama's foreign policy speeches understandably play down the "D word," eschewing the aggressive advocacy of democracy that was the rallying call of the Bush administration. He is playing it cool, as he should, avoiding the hegemon's temptation to hector others. The proselytizing of Western-style democracy by the former president provoked resistance from authoritarian regimes, which are directly threatened by the rhetoric. It put them in a win/lose situation. A more effective strategy, one that accomplishes the same purpose as the democracy debate, is to champion the Information Revolution.

From Iran to Pakistan, information access has been a key factor in most recent movements for democracy. The "I-Factor" puts authoritarian rulers in a dilemma. They want to control the information space, without which they fear they will lose the support of the people. But they also want the benefits of participating in the global economy, which is increasingly dependent on the free flow of information.

Faced with massive demonstrations following a disputed election, Iranian authorities used sophisticated filtering and surveillance technologies to try to block the Internet and social networking sites that the opposition was using. But the tweets kept coming and information continued to flow through proxy servers and other means of circumvention inside and out of the country. In China, the government was forced to backtrack on its plan to install "Green Dam" software on all computers, which would have allowed them to block access to whatever content they wished and to monitor individuals' private computer use. Both China and Iran fear popular "color revolutions" like those in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon, which were themselves fueled by independent media and mobile networks.

In Pakistan, the popular uprising that forced General Musharraf from power was driven by 24/7 live television coverage on newly independent commercial TV stations. Musharraf had opened the airwaves to private broadcasting in 2002 to counter the popularity of Indian satellite news programs, but real-time coverage of the lawyers' movement galvanized the public and led to his removal. Today, private media in Pakistan remains a potent political force that has helped swing the public behind the military campaign against the Taliban.

There are many other examples, from Moldova and Zimbabwe to Venezuela and Burma, where independent media and mobile phones are challenging authoritarian rule. But the I-Factor not only impacts movements for democracy, it is often the key factor in economic development. Economist Daniel Kaufmann has shown a correlation between media freedom and good governance, and there is a mounting body of evidence that the growth of cell phone telephony and independent media translate into lower levels of corruption and higher economic growth. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has famously argued that no famine has ever occurred in a country with a free media. The cornerstone of a modern economy is its accountability to citizens through the media.

As people assert their rights to access information and assemble freely in cyberspace, repressive governments are using the tools of communication as a weapon of war. When Estonian nationalists toppled a Russian war memorial, the Russians struck back with an unprecedented cyber assault against the country's information grid, disabling the system with massive denial of service attacks. What the Russians learned in Estonia they applied with a vengeance in Georgia, overwhelming the Internet with a first wave assault ahead of invading tanks. More recently, North Korea is suspected of creating digital mayhem at government sites in the US, Japan and South Korea. Recognizing the centrality of cyber warfare, Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued an order in late June to establish a new Cyber Command.

Carl von Clausewitz, the iconic military theorist, would likely argue that cyber war is simply the extension of the I-Factor by other means. As the US military prepares for the digital battlefield, the administration should promote access to information as its signature foreign policy theme. The promotion of open sources of information and communications and increased assistance for local media development should be the front line of American diplomacy.


David Hoffman is President of Internews Network, a non-profit organization that has worked in over 70 countries to empower local media worldwide.