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The State Department’s Shameful Record on Internet Freedom

At the annual meeting of the Community of Democracies last month in Lithuania, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struck a characteristic note of cautious idealism in support of Internet users living under repressive governments: “Because technology both empowers and endangers your work, we are giving activists new tools to try to circumvent the many obstacles that governments are putting in your way.” In a February speech Clinton gave at George Washington University, she said roughly the same thing: “There is a debate currently underway in some circles about whether the Internet is a force for liberation or repression. … [We] support a burgeoning group of technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against Internet repression.” This is complicated, Clinton finds new ways to say with every speech, but we’re doing all the right things. Official U.S. policy unequivocally favors a “free and open Internet” and opposes repressive censorship regimes worldwide through the best available means.

But, in reality, this isn’t exactly true. An examination of the State Department’s record of its 18-month-old Internet freedom agenda reveals significant failures, both in overall funding efforts and in the omission of vital tools from its approach to helping activists crack through the layers of censorship imposed by repressive regimes. Before democracy advocates abroad can truly take heart in Clinton’s words, the department needs to admit to past mistakes and adopt a truly comprehensive approach to addressing the issue.

FRUSTRATION WITH THE State Department’s sluggishness in allocating funds to address Internet freedom issues has simmered for some time. As far back as January 2010, a bipartisan group of five senators wrote to Clinton demanding greater accountability for the department’s funding process, and, at a March 2010 press conference, Senator Sam Brownback threatened to place holds on State nominees if swifter action wasn’t taken. He declared, “The stakes are too high for bureaucracy and excuses.” That same month, Internet freedom activist and former ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer testified before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, arguing that he had “never been more appalled at the State Department’s refusal to do what is so clearly in the national interest of the United States.”

Part of the problem is that the State Department has simply been slow to spend the money that certain zealous members of Congress have allocated to their pet cause. In the aftermath of Clinton’s February speech, critics in the press noted the department’s failure to distribute approximately $30 million in Internet freedom funds, despite receiving dozens of grant proposals for many times that amount. Indeed, in 2010, the department was 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. 

Another large point of contention is the State Department’s decisionmaking regarding which new technologies to fund—and which to exclude from funding. 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.

Indeed, a substantial fractionof Clinton’s critics have focused on the department’s failure to support specific anti-censorship “circumvention” technology. Senator Dick Lugar and others, including high-profile journalists Jackson Diehl and Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post and Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, have championed the cause of a group called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. A prominent alliance of software companies that has repeatedly sought and been denied State Department funding, the group includes the makers of several Internet censorship circumvention tools like Ultrasurf and Freegate, sophisticated pieces of software that allow users to bypass Internet restrictions like China’s “Great Firewall” to visit blocked sites while masking their own IP addresses. Proponents of the technology cite claims of nearly one million daily users worldwide and say that the GIFC is constrained only by its small budget, which forces it to make tough choices when surges in demand, as during the 2009 Iranian protests, exceed the limited capacity of its servers. With sufficient funding, according to supporters including Lugar and The Washington Post editorial board, the GIFC could expand to serve hundreds of millions of Internet users under repressive regimes.

Multiple reasons have been floated for why State might be unwilling to fund such circumvention tools. First, the technology is unlikely to prove the silver bullet that some of its proponents are fond of making it out to be. Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Law & Society, explained to me that technical limitations make it difficult for the circumvention tools to provide a full solution to the problems of censorship. “The problem with circumvention,” he says, “is that you’re basically setting yourself up as someone’s Internet service provider,” meaning that users can very quickly use up a lot of the bandwidth that’s provided at no cost. “This theory that we can somehow invite China’s four hundred million Internet users to use our circumvention tools is literally insane.” In addition, the best circumvention tools won’t help you if the government is willing to shut off the Internet entirely, as in Egypt during the 2011 revolution or in China’s entire Xinjiang province for ten months last year.

Others, meanwhile, have suggested that the answer has more to do with the ties of many GIFC leaders, including Bill Xia, a Chinese expatriate and CEO of the GIFC company Dynamic Internet Technology, Inc., to the Falun Gong, a religious group banned and persecuted by the Chinese government. Lugar and others allege that the political radioactivity of the group in China is the real reason for the State Department’s reluctance to support GIFC circumvention tools. A January 2010 Washington Post editorial calling for GIFC funding quoted an anonymous State Department official saying that “the Chinese would go ballistic if we did that,” referring to the transfer of funds to the Falun Gong-affiliated GIFC.

As it turns out, the experience of another government body, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, contradicts both explanations. The BBG, an independent government agency responsible for Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, has been struggling for years to reach audiences restricted by government censors. Of late, this task has put the agency on the front lines of the Internet freedom battle in China, Iran, and elsewhere. In order to get around censorship, BBG board member Michael Meehan explained to me, the agency has spent millions of dollars on extra proxy servers for GIFC circumvention tools like Ultrasurf and Freegate. While fully aware of their upper-end limitations, BBG experts have concluded that these tools remain among the best options available. The RFA website maintains a page, entitled “Getting Around Internet Blockage,” with well-updated advice for users and links to circumvention tools. “The U.S. government does not spend enough money on this,” says Meehan. “It’s probably off by a factor of ten.”

SECRETARY CLINTON’S USUAL answer to her detractors on this issue is that the specific criticisms of Lugar and others regarding circumvention tools imply a small-minded misunderstanding of the broader battle for Internet freedom, in which no one technology will make a decisive difference. She summarized this argument at the end of her February speech at George Washington University:

I know some have criticized us for not pouring funding into a single technology, but we believe there is no silver bullet in the struggle against Internet repression. There’s no app for that. Start working, those of you out there. And accordingly, we are taking a comprehensive and innovative approach, one that matches our diplomacy with technology, secure distribution networks for tools, and direct support for those on the front lines.

While everyone agrees, in other words, that we should fight for a free Internet, Clinton argues that online censorship can take many forms, from website blocking and content deletion to cyber attacks on dissidents, and the proposed countermeasures therefore should be even more diverse.

But the truism that no one tool will bring about a free Internet should not be used to silence legitimate criticism of the State Department for neglecting to support technology that has gained widespread endorsement from members of Congress, the press, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Indeed, the point of a “comprehensive” approach like the one endorsed by Clinton is that all techniques are imperfect, and thus depend on complementary alternatives to function at their highest capacity. A true realization of this policy would include support for both mesh networks and circumvention tools, training for activists and pressure on antidemocratic corporations. Admitting to and correcting for these past mistakes would go a long way towards convincing the world that, when it comes to Internet freedom, U.S. policy is not all talk.

Max Schulman is an intern at The New Republic.