Much of the Internet hype that gushed forth in the 1990s is beginning to
wilt under financial and cultural realities. The predictions by hip technology
magazines that the Internet, with its free flow of information, would put
media conglomerates out of business and make government obsolete now look
naive and, well, wrong.
The State Department should consider those faulty predictions as it
begins to mold an Internet strategy that includes electronically disseminating
speeches, reports and analysis abroad in hopes of delivering the department's
view on trade, news events and foreign policy. The Internet, as many foreign
policy experts agree, has the potential to pry open previously closed nations
that control the media so that their citizens can learn about different
viewpoints. By doing so, the Internet can foment opposition to policies
or national governments in ways that traditional diplomacy cannot.
It's more than just a theory. The Environmental Protection Agency has
learned how powerful the Internet can be in building a grass-roots movement.
When the agency began posting its inventory on how much toxic pollution
companies release, EPA IT officials said residents in towns where some of
the biggest polluters were located began organizing to pressure the companies
to reduce pollution.
But to expect too much from the Internet may set State up for disappointment.
Just as big promises about how laptops in the classroom could improve education
have largely gone unfulfilled, so may promises that the Internet can be
the catalyst to stimulate foreign citizens to fight against policies or
governments State opposes.
Others warn that a pitfall waiting for anyone using the Internet is
that information can quickly be checked for factual errors, unnecessary
spin and incompleteness. Experts point out that if State fails to follow
those rules, it risks its reputation as a fair broker.
The Internet has the potential to greatly transform the way agencies
operate, but as most are finding in the commercial sector, the Net is just
one tool — albeit a powerful one — in an organization's toolbox. Keeping
that perspective may help State and other agencies form a realistic and
effective Internet strategy.