The State Department has been working furiously and mostly behind the scenes to cajole and pressure Arab governments to halt their clampdowns on communications and social media. In Tunisia there seem to have been real results. In Egypt, it's too soon to tell.
Ever since the State Department intervened during protests by the Iranian Green movement in June 2009, convincing Twitter to postpone maintenance so opposition protestors could communicate, the U.S. government has been ramping up its worldwide effort to set up a network of organizations that could circumvent crackdowns on Internet and cell phone technologies by foreign governments. That effort faced its first two major tests over the last few weeks and the State Department has been working with private companies, non-governmental organizations, and academic institutions to activate this network and put it to use in real time.
"Our mission is to provide a lifeline of protection when people get in trouble through a range of support for the activists and the people on the ground," Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) Michael Posner said in an interview on Friday with The Cable. "I think there will be an increase in contacts on several levels in the coming days and weeks."
Even before the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt, the State Department was working to drastically increase its activities with the internet freedom organizations, many of them using State Department funding provided through a grant program administered by DRL. This month, State announced it would spend another $30 million on this project.
For Posner, the drive to create an "open platform" for Internet communications is part of the overall drive to protect the universal rights the administration has been trumpeting in recent days and that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out in her speech on Internet Freedom.
"What we're really talking about here is the ability of people to speak freely, to demonstrate peacefully, to associate and assemble in the public square. These are the human rights that are being restricted," Posner said.
In the case of Tunisia, the State Department mixed a strategy of working with companies and third party groups with a series of private and public communications between the Obama administration and the government of now-ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The effort began shortly after a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, lit himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid on Dec. 17. News of the event shot around the country through Twitter and Facebook, sparking a wider protest movement. The Tunisian government responded by hacking massive amounts of Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail accounts and targeted other sites where protestors were convening or communicating.
Facebook contacted the State Department soon thereafter, another State Department official told The Cable, asking for assistance and to help coordinate the response. Facebook then created an encrypted option for accessing the site from Tunisia while the State Department convoked the Tunisian ambassador in Washington to complain about the government's tactics.
"These tactics were used against American companies, so we have equities on multiple fronts," the official said. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman delivered a stern message to the ambassador in DC while the U.S. ambassador in Tunis Gordon Gray delivered the same message to the top levels of Ben Ali's government. When these private efforts to convince Tunis to open Internet restrictions failed, senior U.S. officials went public with their criticisms.
"We've been in touch with State and a lot of people on the ground and helping them navigate any of the blocks the government has put in place," said one Washington human rights advocate who was deeply involved in the effort.
State Department officials told The Cable that their efforts paid off, given that Ben Ali -- before stepping down -- said that he "heard the Tunisian people" and removed the blocks on the Internet and social media sites, although he had never cut off the entire country from communication. The State Department official said that while technology was an accelerant for the protests and a way for the protesters to get unvarnished information, it did not spur the movement.
"This was not a Twitter revolution. It was not a revolution either made possible or successful through the use of applications like Twitter," the State Department official said. "It mattered in Tunisia but ultimately that was a revolution of, for, and by the Tunisians."
Then came the protests this week in Egypt and the Mubarak government's decision on Thursday to cut off all Internet and cell phone service to the entire country. This sweeping, unprecedented action stymied both the State Department and the private and non-governmental organizations they were working with in Egypt.
"When a government literally shuts down the networks, the solutions are few. You can't circumvent a complete network shutdown," the State Department official said.
"None of this was an issue in Egypt until 24 hours ago," said another Washington expert who works on Internet freedom and human rights issues in the Arab world.
Nevertheless, the pro-Internet freedom network kicked into high gear, looking for loopholes in the blackout and connecting with people on the ground via the few pieces of communications technology that were still working -- land line telephones and ham radios.
The State Department started sending increasingly strong private messages to Cairo, the official said, culminating with Clinton's public statement on Friday, when she said, "We urge the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful protests and to reverse the unprecedented steps it has taken to cut off communications."
State Department officials also ramped up their coordination with U.S. companies, advocacy groups, and universities to share information on workarounds and connect these institutions to people on the ground.
The official declined to comment on whether State was pressing Internet and cell phone carriers in Egypt to defy the government and restore access to services. Vodaphone, for example, said it was "obligated" to comply with the Egyptian government's demand to shut down. But the work with private entities to restore lines of communication in Egypt continues.
For critics of the administration's stance on the Egypt protests, the State Department's furious efforts behind the scenes on the issue of Internet freedom are insufficient to compensate for what they see as an overall lackluster, and belated, U.S. government response to the crisis.
"The real problem is that when your macro policy and your micro policy don't match up, it takes all the credibility away," said Danielle Pletka, vice president at the American Enterprise Institute. "It's one thing to stand up and say don't shut off access to cell phones, but when top administration officials refuse to side with the protestors overall, it sends the message that there will be no consequences" for the Egyptian government if it chooses to ignore the administration's calls for information openness.
The Obama administration knows that their efforts to keep communications systems up and running are but a small part of what's needed diplomatically in Egypt. But they see it as one more tool they can use to pressure the government toward better behavior and find ways to protect American citizens and businesses caught in the crossfire.
"None of us are cyber-utopians, we have always been clear eyed about this," the State Department official said. "The question is not whether tech is good or bad, it's disruptive. And in a disruptive environment, the question is, how can you maximize your interests."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.