Q&A with Alec Ross, Former Senior Advisor for Innovation to Hillary Clinton
Alec Ross, one of today’s leading thinkers on innovation, has spent his career helping investors, corporations, and government leaders better understand the implications for technology in the public sphere. I asked Ross for his thoughts on technology, censorship, and the private sector’s role in development. Here’s what he had to say.
Q. Throughout your career, you’ve had an immense impact on the relationship between diplomacy and technology. Can you please share with us a moment from your career in which you’ve seen technology influence change in a developing country that was formerly resistant to change?
A. The most striking example I have seen is the impact of mobile payments in Africa. Kenya does not necessarily leap to mind when someone says “financial innovation,” but it may well be the most advanced of the 196 countries on planet Earth when it comes to the development and deployment of mobile payments. It’s remarkable—cab drivers get aggravated if you try to pay them in cash. The entire financial culture has gone mobile, and more than 10 million Kenyans live their financial lives entirely through their mobile phones.
Q. Mobile technology is transcending poverty lines and enabling nearly 86 percent of the world’s population to better access both the Internet and each other. Do you envision a situation in which this newly gained access to information will help to alleviate the more basic developmental issues?
A. It already is. Going back to the example of Kenya, an early study showed that those who adopted mobile banking saw their household incomes go up between 5 and 30 percent relative to their peers who did not adopt mobile banking. We are seeing how mobile apps are helping patients in environments with few to no doctors getting the kind of information they need to stay compliant with their medications. I don’t think that mobile technology is a silver bullet for poverty alleviation, but what it does is bring access to information and a piece of personal infrastructure to people who too often are isolated. Reducing this isolation has a material impact.
Q. What are the biggest security risks for global citizens as they continue to gain access to these new technologies?
A. A government’s ability to survey its citizens poses a real threat in countries where political dissent is not tolerated and where human rights are not respected. Being connected means having access to the kind of information and functionality it takes to compete and succeed in our technology rich, knowledge-based economy. Unfortunately, this connectedness can also make people more vulnerable to the prying eyes of authoritarian governments.
Q. Some governments use censorship as a form of control over their citizens. How do you see advancements in technology helping and/or hindering this kind of repression? Can technology combat government censorship?
A. It is getting more and more difficult to censor the Internet because of the powerful Internet freedom tools being developed by engineer activists around the world. When I was at the State Department, we probably spent $100 million to support the development of these tools and to train people how to use them effectively and safely. The kind of control freak mentality that censors have is ill suited to today’s world. The 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak. I sit on the advisory board of a company called AnchorFree, which has a product called Hotspot Shield. It’s actually the 37th largest Internet service in the world—it just surpassed Yelp and Tumblr. After the leader of Turkey shut down access to Twitter, there were millions of downloads to Hotspot Shield, and the ability of Erdogan (the Turkish leader) to keep people from accessing Twitter was reduced to near nothing. We are going to see more and more of this as authoritarians try to censor the Internet.
Q. As more businesses develop socially responsible models of investment, do you see government’s role in international development declining and private businesses taking the lead? If so, what implications does this have for international development practitioners in 10 years? 25 years?
A. I think that development is being increasingly driven by the private sector—not so much by businesses developing socially responsible models of development (it is actually a tiny percentage who have these models in reality), but by government budgets being strained to the max. The United States has a large deficit and debt, which means it is difficult to grow the development budget. The private sector needs to fill in the gap.
Q. The International Relations Online program through American University’s School of International Service combines innovation and international relations by offering a top-10 ranked program in international affairs to students who live and work around the globe. How do you see our program changing the international affairs education landscape?
A. I love that people drawn from all over the world’s 196 countries can now be a part of American University’s School of International Service through its online offerings. I think this will not just extend the educational benefits of what AU has to offer to more students, but I also think the quality of the education will grow as the student body becomes more diverse and drawn from an increasingly broad geographic range. It bodes well for American University—and its students!
Alec Ross recently served for four year as Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a role created for him by Secretary Clinton to maximize the potential of technology and innovation in service of America’s diplomatic goals and stewarding the Secretary of State 21st Century Statecraft agenda. In this role, Alec acted as the diplomatic lead on a range of issues including cybersecurity, Internet Freedom, disaster response and the use of network technologies in conflict zones.
Alec started his career as a sixth grade teacher through Teach for America in inner- city Baltimore where he lives with his wife and their three young children.
Learn more about our innovative online International Relations graduate program.