This morn­ing, I attended an event at the US Embassy Pub­lic Affairs Unit in Can­berra designed to dis­cuss mat­ters of eDiplo­macy and use of online tools in diplo­matic and inter­na­tional affairs efforts.

The event, being hosted specif­i­cally for an Aus­tralian audi­ence by the State Depart­ment included a con­ver­sa­tion with Alec J Ross (he is @AlecJRoss on Twitter), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Senior Advi­sor for Inno­va­tion and Ben Scott, Pol­icy Advi­sor for Inno­va­tion at the State Depart­ment. Alec and Ben were in Wash­ing­ton DC and the hook up was done via a telep­res­ence suite. A replay of the ses­sion is avail­able online (it loops the replay, so you may need to pick the right time to begin). A sum­mary of the Twit­ter con­ver­sa­tion that occurred dur­ing the ses­sion is avail­able at #oznet­free­dom.

Alec and Ben answered ques­tions from a wide audi­ence includ­ing me, Pia Waugh from Sen­a­tor Lundy’s office, Annabel Crabb (ABC Online), Bernard Keane (Crikey), Fer­gus Han­son (Lowy Insti­tute) a jour­nal­ist from TripleJ and an online audi­ence of sev­eral oth­ers includ­ing a num­ber of Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives. DFAT were invited, but did not attend.

The agenda, based on a ques­tion and answer for­mat, ranged across a num­ber of sub­jects asso­ci­ated with online diplo­macy, open gov­ern­ment, open data, use of online tools for dis­as­ter man­age­ment and 21st Cen­tury statecraft.

Alec and Ben answered ques­tions frankly and shared the responsibilities.

On the mat­ter of open data and the free­dom to access the Inter­net unre­stricted, the point was made that the US posi­tion is very much that the Inter­net is viewed by State as a place for dia­log about what gov­ern­ment is doing. For open data, there is sin­gu­lar impor­tance being placed on all agen­cies in the US Gov­ern­ment ensur­ing that all non-​​national secu­rity data is avail­able (under Pres­i­den­tial Order, no less) in a search­able, reusable, open licensed format.

Alec noted that the net­work effects present in encour­ag­ing pub­lic ser­vants to col­lab­o­rate and com­mu­ni­cate online are man­i­fold. He noted that the “weak ties” effect (though Mark Granovetter’s ground­break­ing research in this field at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity was not cited) can be observed over and over when dis­parate groups are empow­ered to con­nect and col­lab­o­rate — from activists in Egypt and Tunisia to enthu­si­asts hack­ing at datasets to improve national park infor­ma­tion, to vol­un­teer tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ties assist­ing civil-​​military work­ers indis­as­ter man­age­ment and con­flict zones. Par­tic­u­lar note was made of Aus­tralian efforts by Queens­land Police Media on Twit­ter and Face­book dur­ing the recent floods and on an ongo­ing basis since.

With respect to dis­as­ter and con­flict man­age­ment work, social media are viewed by State and other US agen­cies as a rapid dis­tri­b­u­tion method for author­i­ta­tive infor­ma­tion in sit­u­a­tions where rapid change is the norm. An agency’s mes­sages can be spread faster, to more peo­ple on a far greater scale than through for­mal, press con­fer­ences or other media use.

On the mat­ter of the ten­sion between open gov­ern­ment and the need for diplo­matic con­fi­den­tial­ity, it was noted that while much of gov­ern­ment needs to make con­tin­ued efforts to be more open, secrecy remains impor­tant, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing sen­si­tive negotiations.

In response to a ques­tion on how for­eign ser­vice work­ers could best use the tools of eDiplo­macy to improve their work, it was noted that online tools can be used effec­tively to reach out and engage the dis­en­gaged; to con­nect to those who nor­mally would not be present in the dis­cus­sion around issues. In par­tic­u­lar the “two ears, one mouth and use them in that pro­por­tion” maxim was cited as a way for pub­lic sec­tor agen­cies, espe­cially the diplo­matic corps, to use online tools to build a nuanced under­stand­ing of the coun­tries and envi­ron­ments they work in.