Government officials worldwide should stop fighting against the use of social media and embrace conversations with their citizens, except in the case of terrorist groups, a US Department of State official said yesterday.
Alec Ross, senior advisor for innovation in the Office of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, said that it would be difficult for government officials to control social media use.
While Ross agreed that social media can be used for bad purposes, he questioned whether governments can control their use. "The 21st century is a lousy time to be a control freak," he said. "Instead of regulating this environment, or seeking to control the environment, I think what's important is that we engage in it."
Ross said that the Arab spring, a pro-democracy movement that ignited in North Africa a year ago, showed the power of social media. "Social media is changing the entire ecology of geo-politics," he said. "It redistributes power from hierarchies to citizens, from large institutions and the nation state to individuals and networks of individuals."
Ross encouraged governments to support an "open internet," even amid calls to tighten up security in the face of continued cyberattacks.
Ross made an exception, however, for terrorist organisations when asked about a legal effort to block alleged terrorist groups from using social media.
Ross said he has "no sympathy" for al-Shabaab, a Somali militant group, and other terrorist groups. "For me to think about whether they should be allowed to use Twitter or not, I go to a more fundamental question, which is, do they have the right to exist or not?" he said. "My answer to that is no. They should be dismantled, they should be destroyed. They certainly aren't going to see me advocate for their free speech rights."
Ross also fielded questions about whether the US Department of Justice's decision to subpoena Twitter account records and the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the US Congress violate the State Department's policy of pushing for Internet freedom.
Ross defended the DOJ's right to subpoena Twitter records, saying the agency has an obligation to investigate crime. Subpoenas of Twitter records are no different than DOJ subpoenas of phone records, which the agency does hundreds of times each year while investigating crimes, he said.
Ross ducked the question on SOPA, saying that the legislation is a long way from being approved by Congress. SOPA would allow the DOJ to seek court orders requiring domain-name registrars, search engines and ISPs to block US residents from accessing foreign websites accused of copyright infringement.
Questions on SOPA are a "hypothetical based on a theoretical," Ross said. "Some people are talking about SOPA like it's law - it's not. As of now, it's doing nothing. It's just one of thousands of bills being considered in the United States Congress."