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Why the State Department refused to spend the funds to “expand access and information in closed societies” such as Iran and China

Posted by Author on May 3, 2010

By L. GORDON CROVITZ, via The Wall Street Journal, May.2, 2010-

When a government department refuses to spend money that Congress has allocated, there’s usually a telling backstory. This is doubly so when the funds are for a purpose as uncontroversial as making the Internet freer.

So why has the State Department refused to spend $45 million in appropriations since 2008 to “expand access and information in closed societies”? The technology to circumvent national restrictions is being provided by volunteers who believe that with funding they can bring Web access to many more people, from Iran to China.

A bipartisan group in Congress intended to pay for tests aimed at expanding the use of software that brings Internet access to “large numbers of users living in closed societies that have acutely hostile Internet environments.” The most successful of these services is provided by a group called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, whose programs include Freegate and Ultrasurf.

When Iranian demonstrators last year organized themselves through Twitter posts and brought news of the crackdown to the outside world, they got past the censors chiefly by using Freegate to get access to outside sites.

The team behind these circumvention programs understands how subversive their efforts can be. As Shiyu Zhou, deputy director of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, told Congress last year, “The Internet censorship firewalls have become 21st-century versions of Berlin Walls that isolate and dispirit the citizens of closed-society dictatorships.”

Repressive governments rightly regard the Internet as an existential threat, giving people powerful ways to communicate and organize. These governments also use the Web as a tool of repression, monitoring emails and other traffic. Recall that Google left China in part because of hacking of human-rights activists’ Gmail accounts.

To counter government monitors and censors, these programs give online users encrypted connections to secure proxy servers around the world. A group of volunteers constantly switches the Internet Protocol addresses of the servers—up to 10,000 times an hour. The group has been active since 2000, and repressive governments haven’t figured out how to catch up. More than one million Iranians used the system last June to post videos and photos showing the government crackdown.

Mr. Zhou tells me his group would use any additional money to add equipment and to hire full-time technical staff to support the volunteers. For $50 million, he estimates the service could accommodate 5% of Chinese Internet users and 10% in other closed societies—triple the current capacity.

So why won’t the State Department fund this group to expand its reach, or at least test how scalable the solution could be? There are a couple of explanations.

The first is that the Global Internet Freedom Consortium was founded by Chinese-American engineers who practice Falun Gong, the spiritual movement suppressed by Beijing. Perhaps not the favorites of U.S. diplomats, but what other group has volunteers engaged enough to keep such a service going? As with the Jewish refuseniks who battled the Soviet Union, sometimes it takes a persecuted minority to stand up to a totalitarian regime.

The second explanation is a split among technologists—between those who support circumvention programs built on proprietary systems and others whose faith is on more open sources of code. A study last year by the Berkman Center at Harvard gave more points to open-source efforts, citing “a well-established contentious debate among software developers about whether secrecy about implementation details is a robust strategy for security.” But whatever the theoretical objections, the proprietary systems work.

Another likely factor is realpolitik. Despite the tough speech Hillary Clinton gave in January supporting Internet freedom, it’s easy to imagine bureaucrats arguing that the U.S. shouldn’t undermine the censorship efforts of Tehran and Beijing. An earlier generation of bureaucrats tried to edit, as overly aggressive, Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech in Berlin urging Mikhail Gorbachev: “Tear down this wall.”

It’s true that circumvention doesn’t solve every problem. Internet freedom researcher and advocate Rebecca MacKinnon has made the point that “circumvention is never going to be the silver bullet” in the sense that it can only give people access to the open Web. It can’t help with domestic censorship.

During the Cold War, the West expended huge effort to get books, tapes, fax machines, radio reports and other information, as well as the means to convey it, into closed societies. Circumvention is the digital-age equivalent.

If the State Department refuses to support a free Web, perhaps there’s a private solution. An anonymous poster, “chinese.zhang,” suggested on a Google message board earlier this year that the company should fund the Global Internet Freedom Consortium as part of its defense against Chinese censorship. “I think Google can easily offer more servers to help to break down the Great Firewall,” he wrote.

The Wall Street Journal

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