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Tech guru Alec Ross leaves the State Department

Tech guru Alec Ross  leaves the State Department

The State Department’s first-ever special advisor for innovation, Alec Ross, has stepped down and returned to the private sector after a four-year effort to bring diplomacy into the 21st century.

Known as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s "tech guru" inside the department Foggy Bottom headquarters, Ross co-founded the non-profit One Economy before joining President Barack Obama‘s first presidential campaign as part of the technology and innovation leadership team. He joined the State Department in 2009 as one of the few Obama people in Foggy Bottom. His principal projects were "21st Century Statecraft," an effort to integrate technology into diplomacy and reach out to new communities, and "Civil Society 2.0," a project that helped more than 1,100 NGOs in over 80 countries build online communities.

Ross’s last day at the State Department was Monday. He sat down for an exclusive interview with The Cable.

"If there were a handful of things I were most proud of, one would be what Secretary Clinton did to make Internet freedom an issue at the grownups’ table," Ross said. "Internet freedom was a very obscure topic when Obama came into office. Now it’s a big deal, largely because Secretary Clinton made it a big deal."

Ross also looked back proudly on the work his office did to help Syrian rebels restore communications and communicate securely after the revolution started and avoid persecution by the Assad regime. His shop provided communications technologies to opposition members in the Syrian border areas and trained NGOs on how to avoid the regime’s censorship and cyber snooping. State also worked during the Libyan uprising to restore communication networks in rebel-held territories such as Benghazi, working with the late Amb. Chris Stevens, to fight the Internet blackout imposed by Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Ross often publicly criticized Western corporations that provided surveillance and censorship activities to authoritarian regimes, admittedly with mixed results.

"I’m proud of the work we did… but Russian and Chinese companies are perfectly willing to come in and sell technologies to authoritarian regimes that American and Western companies are not," he said.

Ross always rejected the idea that innovation was about specific tools such as Twitter or Facebook. He would often say "There’s no such thing as a Twitter revolution," insisting that social media is simply a vehicle revolutionaries can use to organize and spread their ideas and plans.

"It’s really about how do you conduct diplomacy beyond formal interactions between nation states," he told The Cable.

Ross also pushed to bring the State Department into the information age. He trained dozens of U.S. ambassadors in understanding the impact of networks in foreign policy and taught classes for incoming Foreign Service officers at the Foreign Service Institute.

"I lot of people said I was crazy when I said I was going to come here in 2008 because they said it was an innovation-averse environment," he said. "While we still have a long way to go, there’s a big difference from 2008 to 2013 in terms of culture."

No replacement for Ross has been chosen and the job might be split into a couple of different positions, one focusing on policy and one more focused on tech product building, he said. As for Ross, he is working on a non-fiction book about the impact of technology and media on foreign policy and is also exploring screenwriting ideas for an as-yet undetermined Hollywood project.

Ross is also starting a company with "partners in Europe," he said, to help business and government leaders understand how the newly networked world affects business and how the advent of cyber conflict is affecting their jobs.

"So many of these dynamics are new. Corporations, investors, and governments are way behind building a policy framework to respond to this," he said. "If I did it for government, it would have to be the right governments … it would have to be a country that is very friendly to the United States for us to contractually engage with them."

Ross’s former office will continue to be housed inside the Office of the Secretary of State. That’s different than the model pursued by another young Clinton official, Ronan Farrow, whose Office of Global Youth Initiatives was transferred out of the secretary’s office to a permanent home inside a functional bureau when he left the State Department last year.

"Instead of trying to create a new bureau, what we wanted to do was build a long-term institutional capacity. I leave feeling that the work has been fully institutionalized and that the programs will live on," Ross said. "I don’t want this to be viewed as another slice of the pie, but rather a part of every diplomat’s work. I want 21st-century statecraft to just be ‘statecraft.’"