THE BLOG
05/07/2011 15:15 BST | Updated 04/09/2011 06:12 BST

Britain Needs To Be On The Side Of Internet Access Across The World

The "Arab Spring" is the most spectacular example of the dispersal of power. Before visiting the region, I was somewhat sceptical of the extravagant claims made about social media's role in the revolutions. But having visited Tunisia and spoken to activists there, I no longer think you can understand what happened without analysing the role that social media played.

Harvard professor Joseph Nye talks of a world changed by the shifting distribution of power from West to East and the growing dispersal of power from state to citizens.

The "Arab Spring" is the most spectacular example of the dispersal of power.

Before visiting the region, I was somewhat sceptical of the extravagant claims made about social media's role in the revolutions. But having visited Tunisia and spoken to activists there, I no longer think you can understand what happened without analysing the role that social media played.

Social media accelerated political organisation: it took ten days from Muhammad Al Bouazizi dying from his self-inflicted burns to see the end of 23 years of authoritarian rule in Tunisia.

It also made weak connections stronger: as more and more people turned their Facebook profile to the Tunisian flag, disparate individuals realised they weren't alone and that there were too many voices for the state to silence them.

Finally, it created communities that crossed borders - along with satellite television - meaning that the spirit of protest could spread, eventually reaching countries from Morocco in the West to Iran in the East.

Having disrupted business practices, social interactions and political campaigns, 2011 will be seen as the year that the rise and rise of the internet first disrupted foreign relations.

Foreign policy in Britain has yet to catch up. For a long time the dispersal of power away from states was discussed in foreign affairs with reference to Jihadi websites and networks of terror.

But it is only in recent years - following the leadership of Hillary Clinton - that the diplomatic community has begun to understand and implement "twenty-first century statecraft".

Traditionally, diplomacy was done in an environment of information scarcity. Ambassadors would send back telegrams to foreign ministries, comfortable in the knowledge that their views of a country would be the only source of information the minister would see.

Now diplomacy happens in real time, with ministers able to Google most newspapers on earth without leaving their desks, or looking up from their BlackBerrys.

And rather than just being about state to state relationships, governments can now have direct relationships with the citizens of other countries: when the US State Department started tweeting in Arabic, it reached half a million people within days.

Britain's online strength and creativity should, in the classic Foreign Office formulation, give us the chance to "punch above our weight" in the online stakes.

But, alas, Britain's public diplomacy remains defined by a "broadcast" rather than "network" approach.

As the BBC World Service and the British Council are having to work even harder as their budgets face significant cuts, they also have to think about how to develop their engagement strategies.

They have huge potential not just in sharing knowledge and information but also in supporting "citizen to citizen" links.

Just as people have long believed that strengthening ties of trade improves the prospects for peace and the free exchange of ideas, Facebook friendships or Twitter followings already transcend national borders.

But such developments rely on the idea that people will be able to access the internet freely.

Yet a third of the world's population lives in countries where governments continue to censor speech and block content online. Last week, we saw reports of the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, cracking down on attempts at "Revolution by Social Networks".

In Beijing, it's not clear what role the new "State Internet Information Office" will have in controlling access to the internet in China in future.

But in today's world, the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and assembly are increasingly reliant on online organisation and expression.

Britain's foreign policy needs to be clear that promoting unrestricted access to the internet is in our national interest and promotes our national values.

We need to look at the export licensing of technologies that filter the internet: while there is a legitimate government interest in, for example, targeting child pornographers, we should have stronger controls on the export of software if there is a risk it will be used by governments to repress their own people.

We also need to examine what can be done to support civil society in countries that continue to restrict internet access.

That could mean promoting the training of online journalists in specific countries or working with our EU partners in providing them with places they can post to free from censorship by their national governments.

The British Government can't start trying to pick winners in the online world, but we can support a diverse set of tools so that if a state starts censoring one platform, people can move to another.

We are only beginning to learn how the internet will change the way countries relate to one another.

In a previous century, Britain's advocacy of open trade and safe sea lanes helped forge the modern world. Today, Britain should be making the case just as strongly for the free interaction of ideas and people online.