Why Amazon and the State Department Make Strange Bedfellows

What's to come?
June 21 2012 10:00 AM

The Folly of Kindle Diplomacy

The U.S. partnership with Amazon won’t help dissidents spread ideas. It will only bolster conspiracy theorists.

The new Amazon tablet called the Kindle Fire.
Amazon's Kindle Fire touch-tablet

Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Three years ago—back when I was still a carefree cyberutopian—I wrote a short essay on “high-tech diplomacy” for Newsweek. That essay—by far the glibbest text I've ever written—chided American diplomats for not exploiting the immense digital soft power that a company like Amazon had to offer. The Kindle, I wrote, is “a dream device for dissidents” that “could end an era when visiting foreigners have to smuggle samizdat books in and out of authoritarian countries.” If only Washington embraced Kindle diplomacy and “quietly subsidized the purchase of texts it deems most influential and likely to stir up critical thinking”!

Well, the dissidents can start celebrating: Three years on, the U.S. State Department has finally announced an ambitious partnership with Amazon. (Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos and Hillary Clinton were supposed to appear at a joint press-conference Wednesday, but it has been postponed because of Clinton's schedule.) The program—which is slated to run over the next five years—would see the State Department spend up to $16.5 million to purchase a maximum of 35,000 Kindles as well as to pay for content (i.e., books) and delivery costs. A fully equipped Kindle costs about $200, so this leaves almost $10 million that can be spent on books—which, given Amazon's low prices, might easily mean 1 million units. Where would these Kindles go? The idea is to ship them to more than 800 designated libraries, public reading rooms, and cultural centers—frequented by more than 6 million young people per year—that the U.S. State Department supports around the globe.

The rationale behind the initiative looks solid—at least, in theory. The U.S. government stocks its cultural outlets with books, learning materials, and newspapers anyway; doing it digitally could save money and speed up the process. One could easily imagine a scheme where the patrons of a cultural center in Argentina would be able to borrow e-books owned by a similar center in Spain. Moreover, problematic and censored books can be read without cluttering the shelves and attracting the attention of the local government's censors. American diplomats believe that the program “would serve to underscore America’s image as a technology leader.”

Alas, the reality is far more complicated. I, for one, no longer believe that a partnership between U.S. diplomats and Amazon is such an unambiguously good idea. In fact, I was dead wrong—not to mention dangerously naive—three years ago. What I couldn't anticipate at the time was just how hard it would be for American technology companies to maintain a veneer of independence when cooperating with the U.S. government. Silicon Valley aspires to be seen as promoting peace, access to knowledge, and universal dialogue; in reality, it is seen as conspiring with the powerful, promoting whatever agenda suits Washington.

Could Twitter really be seen as an independent player when the State Department could get its senior management to delay planned maintenance of the site, as they did during the failed and overhyped “Twitter Revolution” in Iran in 2009? Could Google really be seen as a neutral player when it turns to the National Security Agency for help, as it did after being attacked (supposedly by the Chinese government) in early 2010? Could Amazon be seen as a neutral player when it buckled under the pressure of American politicians and purged its servers of the files uploaded by WikiLeaks—the State Department's most famous public enemy—as it did in late 2010?

And is the $16.5 million Amazon is set to receive just payback for good behavior during the WikiLeaks saga? Probably not—but inevitably, that’s how conspiracy theorists in Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing will view it. (That the selection of Amazon involved no competitive tender would only strengthen their case.) Among America's adversaries, Silicon Valley is increasingly seen as just another tool of wielding of U.S. power. Given all the recent buzz about American-engineered spyware like Flame, foreign politicians using their Kindles to read anything should think twice: How do they know that the U.S. government is not quietly studying their reading habits by peeking into Amazon's cloud?

America's adversaries are likely to see this new Kindle initiative as an indication of America's intent to politicize the e-book space—a cunning way of using Silicon Valley's communications infrastructure to quietly push for regime change. Whether regime change is America's real intent here doesn't really matter. In most cases, international politics is 90 percent perceptions and only 10 percent reality. In fact, regimes in China, Russia, and Iran already harbor similar concerns about their reliance on American email, American search engines, American operating systems, and American social networking sites—hence their aggressive efforts to ban themswitch to open-source alternatives, develop domestic equivalents, and proclaim them to be assets of strategic importance that cannot be sold off to foreign investors.

In an era of Flame and Stuxnet—developed by the American government and exploiting vulnerabilities in American software—these are not trivial concerns. How long before China and Iran ban all foreign e-readers and promote their own domestic alternatives? And does anyone doubt that those would be far worse for dissidents’ privacy and free expression than today's Kindle—which, for purely political reasons, might be increasingly hard to get in their home countries? By striking the deal with Amazon, the U.S. government introduces perverse incentives to the global market for e-readers. Tools that have previously been seen as benign and irrelevant would now be seen as subversive. This is the very paradox of America's “Internet freedom agenda”: The more Washington does to promote it, the worse things get.

Herein lies the lesson for well-meaning diplomats (and ex-cyberutopians like me): regardless of how superb and efficient e-readers, social networks, or search engines might be for information delivery, it's wrong to think of them as mere tools with stable and coherent meanings (let alone with clear and easily predictable effects). Once embraced by the U.S. government, these tools no longer exist in the geopolitical vacuum of Silicon Valley. A lengthy and complex history of American foreign policy, Washington's ongoing experiments with cyberweapons, Silicon Valley's previous run-ins with authoritarian governments—these are just some of the many factors that set the stage for how these tools will be interpreted. In other words, their meanings, capabilities, and effects depend on who is looking and why.

This is not to embrace defeatism or suggest that diplomats have no business experimenting with the latest technology. But diplomats have to do it in full awareness that their benign intentions might be misinterpreted and occasionally backfire. Often, their quest for innovation may not even be worth it—particularly if it risks making things worse in the long run. Alas, everything we know about the partnership between the State Department and Amazon suggests that American diplomats have no such awareness. A dream device for dissidents remains just that—a dream.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

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