State Department promotes Internet diplomacy

But encouraging online interaction among individuals could pose policy challenges for Obama administration.

For the first time in its history, the State Department is conducting international relations by encouraging online interaction between individual Americans and foreigners. But the risks associated with this approach are unknown so far, said the department's new media strategist on Monday.

Calling the tactic, "21st century statecraft," Alec Ross, senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, explained that this use of information technology to move beyond "traditional government-to-government diplomacy to people-to-people diplomacy" is "a big move forward in terms of how the State Department engages with the wider world." Ross spoke at a public discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

But person-to-person diplomacy also creates difficulties for the new administration, noted Ross and the Center's senior fellow Peter Swire, a member of the Obama transition team and former White House chief counselor for privacy during the Clinton administration.

Ross said such "constraints" include ensuring that a federal employee's responses to individual questions posed online represent the administration's position.

Swire cited his June 1 report on using social media in the executive branch. "Suppose a White House blogger -- or someone else answering comments on -- can't get ahold of the North Korea expert," when asked about the problems in North Korea "and simply goes with his or her best judgment about what to say.

"During the campaign, that could backfire if the other candidate gets a good talking point. But in government, the consequences can be much more serious: What if North Korea didn't like the White House comment and decided to launch a missile attack on a neighboring country?" the report noted.

Ross acknowledged that no legal framework exists to handle 21st century statecraft. "What happens the first time a big mistake is made, and it either a) really falls flat, or b) something bad happens?"

The result likely would be "something well short of your missile, but social media is a messy space and government doesn't always lend itself to messy spaces," added Ross, who worked for Obama's presidential campaign and is co-founder of One Economy, a nonprofit that provides low-income people worldwide with technology to improve their lives.

But other technology specialists on the panel said employees' freedom of expression on the Web is critical.

"Ultimately, if individuals in government cannot act as individuals, government will never be successful with social media -- because it is about individuals connecting with other individuals. You have to get over that and let people think for themselves," said Tim O'Reilly, who popularized the phrase Web 2.0 and is the founder and chief executive officer of O'Reilly Media Inc., a technology book publisher. Web 2.0 refers to the evolution of the Internet into a tool for harnessing collective wisdom through information sharing, rather than seeking information only from static sites.

The way to circumvent an organization's inherent chain of command is to instruct subordinates who are posting comments online to type that they are speaking for themselves and not for the agency, he said.

Ross responded that the context of the online discussion, whether the topic is war negotiations or commercial trade, for instance, should determine when it is permissible for a federal employee to speak about State business. "There are different levels of appropriateness and openness for each of those contexts," he said.

Individual citizens also can play a role in people-to-people diplomacy with new media tools, Ross noted. Clinton promoted the technique in May when she urged Americans to text the word "swat" to the number 20222 to make a $5 contribution toward shelter, food and medicine for Pakistanis fleeing that country's war-torn Swat Valley.

"It was a different platform for practicing diplomacy," said Ross. The text message fundraiser was pitched on a Thursday and launched in less than a week, he added.

"We were using the American people, and it was very promising to see the government moving at Internet speed," he said.