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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Alec ROSS: “We are not able to tweet our way to freedom”

US Secretary of State’s IT guru on e-diplomacy, democracy, and Chris Stevens
20 September, 2012 - 00:00

Alec ROSS, Senior Adviser for Innovations to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is working on the most effective application of technological potential and innovations, as well as spearheading the “21st Century Statecraft” initiative. He thus helps the United Nations to maintain leadership and progress in a wide range of issues, including freedom of the Internet and response to disasters and regional conflicts. Mr. Ross, also known as Clinton’s IT guru, visited Ukraine the other day. He opened, together with US Ambassador John F. Tefft, Text Camp Kyiv and granted an exclusive interview to The Day.

Mr. Ross, two days ago [the interview took place on Thursday, September 13. – Author] I saw a message on your Twitter in English and Ukrainian languages which said that you are here in Kyiv. Do you know Ukrainian?

“(Laughing.) I have a friend here who translated this message for me. I have a lot of followers on Twitter from Ukraine and a lot of people follow me on Facebook in Ukraine. And I wanted to send the message in both languages. So I wish I could speak Ukrainian and Russian but I don’t. If I tried I would make many mistakes.”

Last time during your visit to Ukraine you mentioned your great-grandfather who emigrated from Kyiv. Could you tell us more about him?

“My great-grandfather was born in Kyiv. In 1895 he left and went to Chicago. You know, many Americans with roots and with ties to Ukraine arrived at the time of World War II. This was early 1895 and I feel very much honor here, feel like I am with my people.”

Do you know where he lived in those times, in which part of the city?

“No I don’t. I wish I knew. I don’t think there is any record of that.”

By the way, what was the reason for your great-grandfather to emigrate from Ukraine?

“He was an anarchist and he was fleeing the czarist regime, the czarist police from Russia.”

Do you share his believes of an anarchist?

“No (laughing). Not everybody will agree with that. I am not an anarchist.”

Would you like your picture to be here in this embassy in the gallery of great Americans with Ukrainian roots?

“No. Those are bigger people than me. I am too young to have a picture on the walls. Maybe when I am older I will give my pictures to hang them on the walls. Or when I become a big star, whichever comes first.”

Last year you came to Ukraine, too. Can you see any differences in terms of freedom of speech in our country? Angela Merkel has recently compared Ukraine to Belarus?

“I was here 11 months ago. And I am very glad that the Internet is still open. When I was here 11 months ago much of the focus was on visiting with government officials to make the following point: don’t try to control the Internet. If you do so, Ukraine will become Belarus without freedoms and without happy people. Eleven months later Internet is still open and this is good. We still have some concerns about the issue of media freedom including, for example, the TVi. So, the story is not all good and not all bad. But it is good to be back. Yesterday I had very good meetings with Valerii Khoroshkovsky and Petro Poroshenko, all be headed down to Yalta where I will continue to engage in what I am sure to be positive and productive discussions with my counterparts in the Ukrainian government. Those were very friendly and very productive conversations.”

Some people say that the US is has sent almost an ultimatum through the media to the government with the demand to release Tymoshenko and Lutsenko. Is it diplomatically right to talk this way with a strategic partner?

“I completely agree with you on this issue. John Tefft and my friends here in the embassy follow the Ukrainian politics more closely then I do. Things like the arrest of Tymoshenko send wrong messages. There are very good things that has happened in Ukraine. Euro-2012 put a spotlight on all of Ukraine. The Tymoshenko case is something that put a negative spotlight on Ukraine. The next thing that, I think, will be very important is the parliamentary elections in October. So, one of the things that the world is watching is how these elections are going to go. Not just who wins and who loses, but whether the elections are free and fair, and not just The Day of the elections, but the things that go up to the elections. So if Ukraine wants to show the world that it is an open place, a place that people should invest in, it needs to have free and fair elections.”

But there are other points from Europe. For example, Dr. Robert Menasse, an essayist from Austria told in an interview to The Day that the West does not act rightly towards Ukraine, not making a dialogue, just putting demands. Could you please comment on this?

“I have not read this interview, so I cannot respond to it. We certainly had a pretty robust dialog. I have been here just for three or four hours and I met with Khoroshkovsky, Poroshenko, with the political parties, not only the Party of Regions. I met with Klitschko’s political party. I met with the United Opposition. So, there is very open and very positive productive dialog. And I have not felt constrained at all.”

As far as I know, recently you have been to New Zealand and gave a one-hour interview to a local newspaper. Some time afterwards, an article quoted cyber-sceptic Evgeny Morozov, the author of The Net Delusion, as saying: “By aligning themselves with Internet companies and organizations, Clinton’s digital diplomats have convinced their enemies abroad that Internet freedom is another Trojan horse for American imperialism.” Could you please comment on this?

“I think that is silly. First of all, we do not work with the American Internet Company. In China, we use social media platforms. In Middle East we use Mactoob, in Japan we use Mixi, and in Brazil we use Orkut. So, in countries where they use American platforms, we use American platforms, and in the countries where they use other platforms, we use other platforms. We go where people are.

“It is naive to believe that people who control these companies control what people say on their platforms. Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook doesn’t control what people say and how they organize on Facebook. It is an open platform and people can say and do anything there.

“Twitter is a neutral platform, which can be used by the US, as well as by people who hate USA. Anybody can freely sign up for Twitter; it can be used by anybody for any purpose. You know some people who think that whenever the US is involved, this thing is imperialistic. And I think it is silly. Some people see monsters under the bed every time we do something.”

You mentioned in the abovementioned interview that “State now operates what is effectively a global media empire, reaching a larger direct audience than the paid circulation of the 10 largest US dailies and employing an army of diplomat-journalists to feed its 600-plus platforms.” How can one explain the attack on US embassy in Egypt, killing of US ambassador in Libya, does it mean that diplomacy is not effective?

“Technology is just a tool. You know we are not able to tweet our way to freedom. We cannot tweet our way to peace and prosperity. It is just a tool. The content is what people care about. The policy is what people care about. Just because we have sophisticated the use of technology, it does not make people love or hate us. It is the actual content what matters. So some people who say, oh, with e-diplomacy, with 21st-century statecraft they should change everything. That is a technologistic view. I don’t take a deterministic view. I take a policy deterministic view. I think people will like our policies or dislike our policies whether they hear these policies over Facebook or by somebody in a court in tie, or someone singing in microphone. This doesn’t matter. What matters is what they say.”

Concerning this year’s presidential election in the US we can see that America is divided. Half of Americans are for Romney as representative of capitalist model being afraid of coming socialism to US and the other side is for Obama as champion of European-type social model in America. Is this a correct impression?

“I do not think that any socialism is coming to US. I think that there are just different views about how to ensure America tomorrow is better then America is today and the America of yesterday. What I believe is that one of the things making America most special and one of the things that make America most strong is that there is an open market place of ideas. And people can disagree ferociously and fight very hard against each other in elections. But the elections are free and fair and whoever wins there would be no violence. It would be a peaceful transfer of power from a Democrat to Democrat or from a Democrat to Republican or a Republican to Democrat. This is a sign of American strength. You do not have to put the army in the streets, and you do not to have put the police on streets. People can disagree so hard with each other. We can disagree so hard but we still stay peaceful and the democratic system works. So I think that the fact that there are such disagreements and such political divisions but the elections are free and fair is actually a sign of American strength. We are a very big country, you know there are orbiting cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and there are other rural places. Instead of 50 countries we are one country. Because we do such a good job taking differences of all our citizens and we might disagree strongly with each other but at the end of The Day we come together as the country. And there is always peaceful transition of power.”

You usually put on Twitter a short notice of the events which happened that day decades or even centuries ago. What events from the past you may tweet today?

“I’ll tell you one for September 18. Some 45 years ago there was a racially motivated bombing at a church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young African American girls were killed by racist terrorists. It is a very sad day in America’s history.

“Today is Thursday. Tomorrow is an anniversary of John Steinberg who is one of my favorite authors. Sometimes on somber days, on sad days I choose not to send these tweets. For example, on Wednesday was a sad day because of the death of Chris Stevens who is a friend of mine, the ambassador to Libya, somebody who I worked with during the revolution in Libya. And I thought about what happened at that day in history. On that day the first black woman, first African American woman went into space. But I did not want to tweet that because yesterday I felt very somber. I did not want to put anything on Twitter other then any stuff related to Chris Stevens message. Chris was ambassador to Libya with whom I worked on e-diplomacy during revolution in Libya. He was not ambassador yet but was based in Benghazi and the older son of Qaddafi controlled the phone company, the telecommunication system in Libya. Qaddafi cut access to all Telecoms. And so Chris Stevens and I put a program that restored communications in the rebel parts of Libya East including Benghazi. It was an exciting project and I worked with him closely during the revolution and after revolution, after he became ambassador, so his departure was a very sad incident. So I did not want to tweet what happened in history yesterday.”

It is known that your boss US State Secretary will leave her post.


Will you remain in your current position as IT guru or not?

“I don’t know. I mean if Romney wins then I am gone. If Obama is reelected then we’ll see. We will have this discussion after election. I have an open mind. I will see. I am much focused on today. You know I spend a lot of my life doing what is next. I feel so privileged to have this job that I am not thinking about this job in terms of what’s next, what’s next. When I am an old man, 80 years old, and I’ve got my grandchildren on my knees and I am telling them what I was doing at this job. So I am not to be distracted today by thinking about tomorrow. If I do a good job, either in business or in government, I do not think about future. My wife wishes we knew more about what would be after elections.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day