Internet freedom: The State Department can combat Internet censorship, but it's not. What gives?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 4 2011 7:59 PM

Dropped Connections

The State Department has $30 million to combat Internet censorship. Why isn't it spending it?

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

"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—software programs that enable 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.

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Yet in the subsequent year and half, none of that money has been 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 in order to "unify the policy" before issuing a call for proposals (one finally went out this past January; results should be available within a month).

Others see darker motives: Weakness, cowardice, anxiety not to displease the governments that create firewalls, especially the Chinese government, which routinely denounces "Internet freedom" as an anti-Chinese plot.  As it happens, the two companies that have written some of the most successful anti-censorship programs, Freegate and UltraReach, were founded by by Chinese exiles associated with Falun Gong, the dissident religious movement.

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 websites, they care whether people can read 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 enter via a VOA or RFE site but can then go on to use any other program, including Facebook or Twitter.

The BBG can track its success: At first, it saw 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 of its programs in Tunisia from Dec. 17, when a desperate fruit vendor set himself on fire, to Jan. 12, the day President Ben Ali officially ended Internet censorship in Tunisia, as well as a 6,125 percent increase in use of its services in Egypt from Jan. 21 to Jan. 27, the day the Internet went down across Egypt.

In fact, as of Jan. 30, there were more than 11 million people 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, both Freegate and UltraReach lack servers and must therefore limit access so that their systems don't overload. With even a small slice of that $30 million the State Department hasn't spent, however, the BBG's 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 piece of the U.S. government has anti-censorship technology but no money to expand its use. Another piece 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 CEOs 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.

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