State Department Eyes Smartphones As Policy Tool

The smartphone's rise in overseas markets is a "key development" that the State Department is watching over the next year, an adviser said Tuesday, signaling the agency's interest in using mobile technology to advance foreign policy goals.

The deployment of 3G and 4G mobile networks will enable more people to connect to the Internet at the same time and "up the stakes politically," said Ben Scott, Policy Advisor for Innovation at the Office of the Secretary of State. Mobile broadband penetration in the Middle East and Africa has lagged behind basic cellphone use. How international networks grow over the next 12 to 18 months will be monitored closely, said Scott. With that expansion, "there is going to be a whole lot more money on the table for pushing policies for attracting investment," he said.

Scott spoke at a panel discussion on the flow of Internet information hosted by Media Access Project, a Washington-based public interest law firm. His statement is the latest indication of State's push to leverage mobile technology to influence the political message in unsettled regions.

Using smartphones, activists can access Twitter and transmit photographs to the Internet. "Anyone with a smartphone can become a citizen reporter," he said.

State is also looking to use mobile channels to spread messages to stabilize regions. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, will fund programs that can "develop SMS messaging and other cell phone initiatives" for "countering extremist voices," it indicated in a grant document in November 2011.

It was reported last year that the State Department and Pentagon had spent at least $50 million on building an independent cellphone network inside Afghanistan. The network, created with towers on military bases, was set up to keep the Internet up even if official services were disabled.

State also has quietly supported the development of a phone app in which protesters can trigger a "panic button" that will delete all their contacts and transmit alerts to activists.

In just over the last three years, State would have spent about $70 million to promote free access to the Internet.

"The Internet is politically agnostic. It allows people to realize their desires whatever they may be," said Scott, "To me, that's the bedrock of Internet freedom -- and why it poses both vulnerabilities and opportunities for every government in the world, including ours."