In the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’, onlookers across the world were mesmerized, watching in wonder, debating whether the rebels in these countries should be assisted and if so, how? International pressure was placed on the dictators to heed the calls of their people and give up their ruling positions. While the dictators stalled, plenty argued that this form of ‘diplomatic’ assistance was not enough, that more should be done to help the people. With the exception of NATO forces in Libya, it seemed that citizens throughout the rest of these uprooted countries were being left to their own devices.
In reality though, they were not. An online war was being waged; the war over information, and the US government was siding with the dissidents and providing the ammo: technology that allows people to browse blocked online news and social media sites.
Many of the little known US companies that create this type of technology, like the Tor Project and UltraReach are proud of their support for the Mideast activists, “but the United States’ backing of these firms has the potential to put the White House in an awkward diplomatic position, not only with the countries where uprisings are active, but also with economic partners such as Saudi Arabia and China, who are known to block Web sites they deem dangerous.”*
What does this imply for diplomacy in the long-run? And what is the future of information wars going to look like?
To begin with, it is becoming clearer to nation states that more intelligent or ‘soft’ power tactics can and should be used in international politics. In addition, the war over information; who has the power to produce it, who has access to it and what is it used for, has never been more relevant than it is today. And with this emerging paradigm, comes a whole host of ethical and political issues.
If internet freedom is now being likened to a basic human right, which nation states are willing to fight for, does this pose a real threat to governments like China and Saudi Arabia who deny that right? Will it eventually cause the demise of those governments? Or force them to concede, if they wish to remain intact?
No matter what happens, one thing’s for certain… the fight is only going to get messier.