Kouchner’s Lament: Misunderstanding the Net


Bernard-kouchner.jpgFrench Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a champion of tough-edged humanitarianism, too frequently falls into a linear, knee-jerk approach to global justice causes rather than embracing the complexity of most global problems. Nations are good or bad. We must take forceful action against some country or are otherwise appeasing them. And so on.
Kouchner does not live in nuances, unlike another lesser-known but vital part of France’s foreign policy establishment, presidential national security adviser Jean-David Levitte or Levitte’s successor as US Ambassador to France, Pierre Vimont. These latter two, and perhaps others in France’s national security world, remind one of Brent Scowcroft or Zbigniew Brzezinski — who are America’s leading progressive realists today.
I mention Levitte and Vimont — not to get them in trouble with the Foreign Minister — but because they are constructive, geostrategic pragmatists with a sense of opportunity and costs that Kouchner seems to lack.
In a blunt Huffington Post essay today calling for broader international attention to and attempts at protection of cyber-dissidents and those challenging the authority of totalitarian regimes, Kouchner calls for the internet to be recognized internationally as a global commons that bad governments can be punished for violating the norms of freedom and liberty of global netizens.
I like Kouchner (and am a fan of his talented TV media famous spouse) actually, but this proposal is naive and potentially reckless.
Kouchner is right in his HuffPost comments that the web can sometimes help propagate the interests of scandalmongers, help criminal and terrorist networks move their agendas forward, and undermine the liberty of citizens whose every digital move can be spied on and monitored by state authorities.
What Foreign Minister Kouchner neglects is that deception and misinformation were far more rampant in the age of the telegraph, that old-line telephony and snail mail were used by organized crime and exploited by J. Edgar Hoover.
While he mentions positively the fact that more diffuse internet-based citizen reporting makes it “increasingly difficult to hide a public demonstration, an act of repression or a violation of human rights,” he doesn’t recognize that most “quality journals and news outlets” have long been controlled by editorial cartels — which dole out space on their pages to preferred providers and only leave a small bit for the rest of the serious policy community to compete for.
The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Powerline, Foreign Policy’s The Cable, Daily Beast, Politico, DailyKos, OpenLeft, and many other new media operations and blogs in the US and abroad, even The Washington Note have seriously torn at the jugular of mainstream journalism and the cartels that have served as gate-keepers against too much citizen encroachment.
The internet today — despite the occasional bouts of disinformation and invented scandal — are far more effective and immediate marketplaces of information than the world for which Bernard Kouchner seems to pine.
I am all for protecting, where one can, the interests of citizen bloggers in totalitarian states, but I also know that citizen bloggers and new media operations are often in the sites of democratic governments as well.
I have little doubt that another term or two of Vice President Cheney and his chief aide-de-camp David Addington would have led to further distortions and manipulations of executive authority that would have brought back the equivalent of a “sedition act” in the United States — used to squelch dissent with the excuse of war. Nations like France, the United States, and most developed nations have the ability today to track the digital behavior and decisions of all of their citizens in their totality.
Kouchner’s call for an international body to further reify this capability that is today real but not widely acknowledged in most of the world — and to divide the world between good and bad managers of this global commons seems to me to be a very complicated and dangerous path.
We may be going that direction anyway — but Kouchner in his attempt to wave a flag in favor of humanitarian causes — may in fact be undermining the interests of citizens in nations in the so-called free world.
Individuals and NGOs on the net, it seems to me, have a greater capacity to outrun and outmaneuver the illiberal authorities — in democracies or not — trying to cajole, control, or entrap them.
The good that the internet generates overall far outweighs the benefits — for the time being.
My counsel, offered with respect, is that Minister Kouchner should work harder to recognize that his own facility with issues relating to freedom and control embedded in modern media is riddled with misunderstanding and perhaps lack of experience. He must move beyond the anachronistic yawn that the internet can turn invented stories into truth. Bandwagoning lies can indeed occur — but the internet can also push back and regularly does. Compare the narrow band focus and homogenization of most mainstream media to the vibrancy and diversity of new media, and it’s obvious which is the more healthy choice.
This is not to say that all of what Kouchner recommends is bad — but to jump in to this topic as he has with such an outdated view of what is happening in social networks, with online video, and hyper-diffuse commentary and journalism can produce as many harmful outcomes as it can antidotes to the problems he thinks he is trying to fix.
— Steve Clemons


9 comments on “Kouchner’s Lament: Misunderstanding the Net

  1. Brad Davis says:

    Kouchner clearly doesn’t understand the open and viral nature of
    the internet. Yes, it can be used for bad but the way it has opened
    communication is unlike anything we have EVER seen.


  2. Joe M. says:

    Kouchner must look in the mirror first. France has one of the least free internet communities in the world. Just ask someone who downloads music whether they’d rather us the internet in paris or cairo!


  3. David says:

    “Compare the narrow band focus and homogenization of most mainstream media to the vibrancy and diversity of new media, and it’s obvious which is the more healthy choice.” This reality has been obvious to me for a long time. The television network and television show which opened the door for me to many of the best sources on the internet were Sundance Channel and The Al Franken Show. In particular that is where I was introduced to Josh Marshall and, if memory serves, Steve Clemons.
    An excellent example of editorial meddling was captured in a response to a note I sent Helen Thomas. I do not remember the particular issue, but I wrote her to suggest what I thought was a more appropriate phrase for the point she was making. She wrote back that she had originally used the phrasing I suggested but that her editors changed the wording when they published her commentary. I had always suspected such things happened, but to see what was done to a Helen Thomas piece by an editor, with the resulting reduction of import, left me cold.
    On an internet website, I get to read what Josh Marshall, Steve Clemons, Tom Engelhardt, and any number of other responsible, informed, intellectually honest investigative journalists actually think, not what some editorial board would have me accept as what they intended.
    And then there is the whole issue of stories getting spiked. And what happened to CNBC reporter who so distinguished herself on 9/11 that she was sent to Iraq as an investigative journalist, only to discover real investigative journalism was seriously circumscribed, and when she said so she lost her job.
    The major media are corporate-compromised infotainment sources of revenue. Their job is to sell things, make money for their owners and investors, preferably lots of money, and stay within very strict parameters. Even NPR has had to deal with more and more of this sort of thing.
    The internet, and only the internet, offers a realistic, accessible opportunity to be reasonably fully informed (or if one’s ideology so dictates, to fill one’s head with caca, but that is the price one pays for having a free and open internet media). Nothing else fulfills, in any significant way, what was envisioned when the press was made a part of the Bill of Rights.


  4. Mr.Murder says:

    Perhaps the Shah has a nephew in Paris ready for elevation as the next puppet we could stage a coup for? Is he getting ahead of something for the ILF? What other dissidents that France sides with have a stake in energy sectors of venture capital?


  5. JohnH says:

    Yes indeed, “most ‘quality journals and news outlets’ have long been controlled by editorial cartels — which dole out space on their pages to preferred providers and only leave a small bit for the rest of the serious policy community to compete for.” Not to mention that editorial cartels in cahoots with officialdom tend to set the narrative and frame the issues.
    The best that can happen is that countries agree to sanctify and protect freedom of expression and not make a special exception for new media.
    Anytime the government starts to regulate content, the inevitable result is a suppression of unacceptable views.


  6. Mr.Murder says:

    A treaty can supercede the First Amendment?
    Yes there is a granted power and obligation to uphold treaties, but how could that trump a fundamental liberty?


  7. Steven Clemons says:

    Dan — cool line. I got your note and like your piece. Will send you
    a note tomorrow. all best, steve


  8. Dan Kervick says:

    Isn’t this the sort of thing that should be dealt with by treaty?


  9. Mr.Murder says:

    “…that old-line telephony and snail mail were used by organized crime and exploited by J. Edgar Hoover.”
    You mean the direct mail campaign that MLK, Jr. was a commie? Who would ever think that a guy who bugged King’s phone lines would ever let or enable such a thing?
    The Airsorter in Chief knows. So does a former White House PR man named Rove. They went to the same mail handling facility to do direct mail campaigns…


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