The Fight to Free the Net

Who’s Best Equipped for the Battle?

Max Shulman over at the New Republic starts his most recent magazine article with something of a window-rattler: “The State Department’s Shameful Record on Internet Freedom.”

For some time now, under the leadership of  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. State Department has made access to a free and uncensored Internet comparable to a basic human right.  In her first major address on the topic, early in 2010, Secretary Clinton compared government efforts to limit or restrict the web to “a new iron curtain” shutting out untold millions of people.  Again, nearly a year later in Febrary 2011, she delivered a significant address, referring to the Internet, and social media in particular, as “an accelerant” for social change.  “For the United States, the choice is clear,” she said.  “On the spectrum of Internet freedom, we place ourselves on the side of openness.”

As we’ve noted before, Internet freedom may sound like an easy thing to support, but it’s a sword that can cut in unexpected ways.  For example, the U.S. loudly decried recent efforts by Syrian and Bahraini authorities to limit digital access and thus potentially thwart democracy advocates, but has been silent when British authorities recently requested, unsuccessfully, that Twitter and other micro-blogging platforms limit service to prevent the spread of riots in England.  (UPDATE: Authorities in London say they are considering another bite at that apple.)

That said, there’s still a general consensus that a freer Internet is better than one that’s more closed, and that more needs to be done to crack certain nations’ efforts to wall off their people from the Net.  There are any number of ways to do this, but one of the best tools at hand is anti-circumvention technology (ACTs); essentially programs that mask users’ identities, or hide their Internet activities from prying eyes.

Both the U.S. State Department and the parent organization of VOA – the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) – have actively developed and promoted the use of the ACTs, with programs such as Tor, Freegate, Ultrasurf and others.

For its part, Congress appropriated around $30 million dollars to the State Department to encourage the use and spread of these ACTs and other technologies.  State Department spokespeople compare it to a venture capital fund, providing small amounts of seed money to promising new technologies.

But that approach has created critics – of which Max Shulman is but the latest.

One area of concern is how fast – or slow – State is releasing those funds.  Writes Shulman:

“In 2010, the department allocated $30 million to promote Internet freedom, but the fact sheet accompanying Clinton’s February speech said the department issued just over $5 million in grants the previous year. This spring, State officials further annoyed their congressional overseers by reducing their requested Internet freedom funding from $10 million to zero for Fiscal Year 2012. The request was overruled by Congress, which allocated $20 million in dedicated Internet freedom funding.”

For the record, that $10 million dollars was appropriated by Congress to the BBG to continue it’s ACT work for broadcasters such as Radio Free Asia, VOA and others.

Beyond the monies the State Department has or hasn’t spent, other critics are concerned about the choices it’s making in what technologies to fund.  Again from Shulman:

“In June, The New York Times published a long story extolling the department’s efforts in funding the development of ‘mesh network’ technology—sometimes also referred to as ‘the Internet in a suitcase’— designed to bypass the government-monitored Internet by creating alternative local networks that connect devices directly. The technology can be used to quickly create large local area networks within a city, but it doesn’t solve the problem of bypassing state-run firewalls to connect with the broader Internet from within a censored nation. Rather than extol this partial victory, however, many Internet freedom activists were furious, regarding the Times story as further confirmation that their preferred technology — ‘circumvention software’ that allows users to get around the firewalls of oppressive regimes — was once against getting the cold shoulder from the department.”

While some in Washington had tried to portray this as a David-vs-Goliath  intra-governmental battle (with the State Department being the Goliath), representatives for both organizations have downplayed such speculation. And both State and the BBG actively continue exploring new ways to pry open the digital locks governments like Burma, China, Iran and many others put on the Internet.

One of the newest ideas is something called “Feed Over Email,” or FOE for short.  While ACT programs like Tor and Freegate can be helpful in hiding one’s Internet footsteps, just reaching the sites to download these programs can be problematic.  Enter FOE, a system by which small parts of the programs are sent out via encrypted email to users, who can then decode the messages and open the executable program files – all without any authorities being able to see what’s being sent.  Still in its testing phase, FOE is just one of many new examples of the continuing fight to free the Internet.

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Activist, Unplugged from the Matrix. Action for Freedom!

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Posted in Human Rights, Internet Censorship

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