In an era where a new friend is just a click away, the United States has embraced the Internet’s borderless reach to foster foreign relations.

As social media networks break down the barriers for communication, the United States supports Internet freedom around the globe using a campaign of ‘digital diplomacy.’ This effort promotes U.S. diplomacy through new technologies, with an emphasis on social media websites with international appeal, such as Facebook and Twitter.

However, according to some experts, the Internet could hinder U.S. goals as easily as advance them.

“People who are concerned about freedom and democracy and creating democratic values abroad…we are far better off assuming the Internet will strengthen dictators,” said Evgeny Morozov, a visiting fellow in the Liberation Technology Program at Stanford University, in an interview with CNN. “By assuming that the Internet does help the bad guys, we by default adopt a far more critical attitude.”

Although many credit the Internet and social media websites with facilitating the recent revolutionary protests in the Middle East, some skeptics question the effectiveness of the U.S. approach. In an article for Foreign Policy Magazine, Morozov maintains the strategy could ultimately backfire.

“By aligning themselves with Internet companies and organizations, [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton’s digital diplomats have convinced their enemies abroad that Internet freedom is another Trojan horse for American imperialism,” wrote Morozov. “Democratic and authoritarian states alike are now seeking ‘information sovereignty’ from American companies, especially those perceived as being in bed with the U.S. government.”

Innovation meets impedance

In June 2009, the State Department convinced Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance so Iranian civilians could use the site to organize protests over Iran’s disputed presidential election.

Six months later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a landmark speech proclaiming the need to “synchronize our technological progress with our principles”.

“Information freedom supports the peace and security that provides a foundation for global progress,” said Clinton. “Nations that censor the Internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote Internet freedom. We want to put these tools in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights.”

Despite Clinton’s call for global Internet freedom, countries such as North Korea and Cuba remain committed to restricting their citizens’ access to the World Wide Web. Other repressive regimes have adopted the Internet as a way to strengthen their hold over their populations.

“Many authoritarian governments have come to terms, more or less, with the fact that the Internet is here to stay,” said Morozov. “So I think the normal reaction for the governments in that particular case is actually not to ban it and not to censor it because it’s only likely to trigger an even greater interest in the issue, but to try to spin it.”

In February 2010, one month after Clinton’s first Internet freedom speech, the Iranian government launched Velayatmadaran, a government sponsored social networking site for followers of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Some critics, like Morozov, interpreted this new website as Iran’s substitute for Facebook, allowing users to share ideas and connect, while limiting the flow of shared information to those within Iranian borders.

However, Christopher Walker, the director of studies at Freedom House, a nongovernmental institution dedicated to advancing democracy, many Iranians continued to use international social networking sites, leading the Iranian government to impede the free flow of information.

“The [Iranian] authorities slow down Internet-connection speeds – it makes it very frustrating, requires those who deliver information to find new and nimble ways to get it through,” said Walker. “I think the authorities in Iran have been very clever in how to increase the nuisance factor in the face of great demand for this information.”

In March 2010, reports surfaced that the Russian government planned to spend up to $100 million to create a national search engine that would serve as an alternative to Google, the international leader in Internet search.

While Russia’s Communication Ministry denied these rumors, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev publically supported a national search engine in January 2011, saying the idea of a countrywide website “is not an issue of national prestige, it is an issue of identity…in the long run it is an issue of culture rather than of state independence.”

But nonetheless, Walker foresees complications if Russian citizens become too absorbed in the political propaganda spread by the Internetbegin to use the internet to question government.

“Russia is a country that, for the time being, has in our view a partly free Internet,” said Walker. “There are some looming challenges and issues that we see. I think there’s a real concern that the potential for more meaningful political communication on public-policy issues will generate greater encroachments by the authorities.”

According to Morozov, the creation of government controlled alternatives to popular websites that allow the free flow of information should serve as a warning to the United States.

“I think we in the West have underestimated the ability but also the ambition of authoritarian states to actually exploit the Internet for their own purposes, for their own agendas,” said Morozov.

Who really benefits?

Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, who was arrested in Iran for political statements posted online in 2004, knows firsthand the Internet can be a double-edged sword.

“Everything has advantages and disadvantages, and at this stage with the Internet and social media, these tools are most beneficial for the opposition rather than for the government,” said Mirebrahimi.

And as technology continues to develop at a rapid rate, the United States remains committed to embracing the global Internet and using social media to strengthen foreign policy objectives.

“People are innovating for good and people are innovating for ill, and what that does is it puts the onus on the European and the American government to keep up,” said Alec Ross senior advisor for innovation at the State Department. “If we just view the changes that are produced by social media and we curl into the fetal position…then I’ll tell you exactly what is going to happen—our enemies are going to use them and then they are going to have the playing field entirely to themselves.”

However, to avoid becoming too actively involved in social media, Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, warns that the United States must “tread lightly.”

“The United States has to be careful not to use these new media as vehicles of propaganda to get across to the world our point of view,” said Levinson. “The whole advantage of these media is that they allow people to express their own points of view.”

The U.S. remains committed

In February 2011, Clinton reaffirmed her call for Internet freedom.

“[U.S. diplomats and development experts] are working to advance Internet freedom on the ground at our embassies and missions around the world,” said Clinton. “The United States continues to help people in oppressive Internet environments get around filters, stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers, and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online.”

And while some critics warn of the possibility of foreign backlash facing the United States if it becomes too directly involved with social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, U.S. officials maintain that ‘digital diplomacy’ is not synonymous with federal promotion of these websites.
“This isn’t so much about our picking a social media way of reaching people so much as it is recognizing the tools that people use and recognizing that in a 21st century information environment we have to expand the kinds of tools that we are using as diplomats,” said Ross.

“Rights like the freedom of expression, the freedom of association and assembly, the freedom of the press, in the year 2011, those rights are increasingly exercised on the Internet and if a government takes action to throttle back or end those rights, we’re going to speak out.”

As the Internet and social media continue to develop as tools to foster foreign policy, international relations are sure to evolve as friends, and possibly enemies, continue to be made with just the click of a mouse.

“These are truly revolutionary times,” said Levinson. “And I think we now are on the edge, and it’s begun to happen already, of another profound change in world relationships.”