The Ethics of American Money in Digital Activism

Sami Ben Gharbia, the Director of Global Voices Advocacy and creator of the Threatened Voices project, has just written a scathing and important essay about the destructive effect of U.S. government interference in digital activism in the Middle East. The essay not only challenges the role of U.S. government funding of digital activism activities and research, but also sets a new ethical standard that casts this money as a contagion that compromises the legitimacy of all it touches. The essay is over 10,000 words long, a rarity in our sound-bite era. Here, in my opinion, are the key arguments.

  • Motive: U.S. support for Internet freedom (Secretary of State Clinton’s prominent speech on the issue, $1.5 million in U.S. government funding for circumvention technology, and increased funding for digital activism training) is not really motivated by concern for freedom of expression, but is “a new geostrategic battle that is hijacking the online free speech field to push for U.S strategic interests.”

The fact that the U.S. government is motivated by its own national strategic interests is beyond debate. As a nation-state its actions are motivated by increasing its own power, prosperity, and security. This has been true since before the term realpolitick was even invented. The question here is whether U.S. government interests and the interests on Middle Eastern digital activists are complementary. Sami clearly believes this is not the case. His strongest argument on this count is the following, which he quotes from Rami G. Khouri, the Director of the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut:

  • Credibility: “One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.”

The reference here is to America’s long-standing and well-documented financial support of Middle Eastern tyrants and autocrats, the most dramatic examples being Egypt (about $1.3 billion in military aid annually), whose president, Hosni Mubarak, has held that office since 1981 and whose administration has been merciless is harassing, imprisoning, and torturing activists. The actions of the U.S. government, which supports digital activists with a few million dollars and opposes them with billions, is indeed hard to defend.

Yet, even if America does support dictators, this does not mean that the money they give to activists does not to some extent offset those bad acts. Sami makes the argument that activities funded by the U.S. government are less effective than independent grassroots efforts. However, this is hard to prove. His best argument against U.S. funding to activists is as follows:

  • Delegitimization: “Foreign money delegitimizes political and social activism. And once delegitimized, activism cannot influence social and political changes and cannot be supported by the rest of the society.”

In this way, rather than helping activists, American money neutralizes them by destroying their legitimacy. Sami goes on to argue that America money will not only create a negative perception of the aid recipient, but will also damage the quality of the work funded. “As more foreign money flows, native digital activism will innovate less or will innovate to only impress Western attention and not to have a real impact on the grassroots level”.

Sami ends with a call to action. He quotes the Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fatah in saying that Americans need to support a “free neutral decentralized Internet” and that American companies like Google should make greater efforts to make sure their tools are safe and accessible to people living under repressive regimes. However, Sami’s strongest call to action is a broader one:

  • Call to Action: “At the present time, we urgently need to resist every governmental attempt to hijack or politicize our space, publicly denounce it and make sure that we are making informed decisions, rather than naively accepting ideologically tinted Internet Freedom funding and support.”

Sami’s challenge that activists, academic institutions, and NGOs need to “resist” and “publicly denounce” American funding, at least in the context of the Middle East, raises the bar on the ethics of those who support and implement digital activism. The “zero tolerance” rule for interactions with the U.S. government is unforgiving and it is understandable that Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Global Voices and fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which has taken U.S. government money, has challenged how far the “contagion” of U.S. funding goes.

Though other commenters on Sami’s post suggested transparency as an antidote to the contagion of American funds, I believe that Sami would not accept that as a sufficient. This puts myself and many others in the field in a difficult position. I benefited from U.S. government money when I attended a State Department-funded conference on women and technology in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year and I helped identify people to invite to Secretary Clinton’s initial Internet freedom speech in January. Sami has laid out a clear “zero tolerance” ethical standard for organizations in this field and there are implications here for all of us.

2 thoughts on “The Ethics of American Money in Digital Activism

  1. Denouncing U.S State Department funding is something we have been doing for a while now, both publicly and privately:

    These kinds of posts, I feel, are helpful in convincing others to stay away from State Department funds. But it doesn’t help those of us already aware of this (we are many.) We need to take this conversation into a deeper discussion of alternatives, these are questions no one is providing sufficient answers to. We turn our backs on the U.S State Department: Done. Now the question is: Who do we turn to?

    The problem is that people here are quick to accept funding from the likes of MEPI because they feel at loss over “what else to do.” Some people acknowledge that this funding has bad implications, but that it is “better than nothing.” If we want such activists to resist these temptations, then we need to tempt them with other things! I feel that these are the real concerns that we should address. We live here and we operate illegally in many different circumstances. We aren’t living in the comfort and protection of other countries where alternative solutions are easier to negotiate. Most of the time we find ourselves relying on pure luck instead of reliable solutions.

    Even in the Gulf – everywhere we go, there’s a MEPI press release giving this or that to this many organizations. No one else is making an offer. We reject these. Now what?!

  2. Pingback: We’re from the government and we’re here to finance you | meta-activism project

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