Why has the State Department run into a firewall on Internet freedom?
April 5th, 2011
“We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.”
That was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January 2010, making what she called “an important speech on a very important subject.” And there was more:
“We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship. We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them.”
Clinton’s audience — Libyans, Egyptians, Iranians, Chinese — applauded. For her promises were plausible: Some of the “tools” she mentioned, such as software that enables individuals to evade regime firewalls without detection, were already in use. The money was there, too: Three months earlier, in October 2009, the State Department had received $30 million from Congress specifically to combat Internet censorship.
Yet in the subsequent year and half, none of that money was spent — not in Libya, not in China, not anywhere. Unfortunately, I am not able to explain why. When asked, an official told me that the department had lacked technical expertise and had been forced to reorganize itself to “unify the policy” before issuing a call for proposals (one finally went out in January; results should be available within a month).
Others see darker motives: weakness, cowardice, anxiety in not wanting to displease the governments that create firewalls — especially the Chinese government. As it happens, the two companies that have written some of the most successful anti-censorship programs, Freegate and Ultrareach, were created by Chinese exiles associated with Falun Gong, the dissident religious movement. Chinese officials routinely denounce “Internet freedom” as an anti-Chinese plot.
As it also happens, another U.S. government agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, has deployed these two companies’ programs with notable success. The BBG runs Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Radio Free Europe (which now broadcasts to Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia) and produces plenty of pointless bureaucracy, too. But because its radio stations all run Web sites, they care whether people can read and hear them. When they received a grant to fight Internet censorship — $1.5 million obtained from an earlier State Department grant in August 2010 — they spent it immediately on support for Freegate and Ultrareach. Those who use their programs now enter via a VOA or RFE site but can then go on to use any other page or program, including Facebook or Twitter.
The BBG can track its success: At first, it noted an uptick in access in Iran, China and Vietnam (where there are now some 80,000 users). More recently, Ultrareach recorded a 700 percent jump in use in Tunisia between Dec. 17, when a desperate fruit vendor set himself on fire, and Jan. 12, the day President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali officially ended Internet censorship in Tunisia. It tracked a 6,125 percent increase in use of its services in Egypt from Jan. 21 to 27.
In fact, as of Jan. 30, more than 11 million people were accessing the Internet via Ultrareach’s technology — and the numbers have doubled since the BBG’s original investment. But expansion might not continue. At the moment, Freegate and Ultrareach lack servers and must therefore limit access so that the system doesn’t overload. With even a small slice of that $30 million the State Department hasn’t spent, however, BBG engineers reckon they could get free Internet access for 50 million people, every day.
And yet — despite explicit requests from Congress, the State Department appears determined not to give it to them. Again, I can’t explain it. Officials now say they can’t give money to another government agency, that they have a broader mandate, that they want to invest in online training for dissidents. The basic fact remains: One part of the U.S. government has anti-censorship technology but no money to expand its use. Another part of the U.S. government has money for anti-censorship technology but hasn’t spent it. The American political system is too dysfunctional, in other words, to create “a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.”
But American companies are not dysfunctional, or at least not yet. A few million dollars is a rounding error in the annual budget of Google or Facebook — and I suspect a large financial reward awaits the company that finds a way to deliver uncensored Internet access to those deprived of it. Their chief executives just need to show a bit more nerve, a bit more appetite for risk than government officials. Given all of the above, that shouldn’t be very difficult.