Just before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Hanoi late last month, Vietnamese authorities redoubled their assault on Internet dissent. Two more bloggers were arrested and another due to be released had his sentence extended. Dissident websites came under cyber attack, taking them offline at a time when they most needed to be visible.
Meanwhile in Washington, a battle is raging over funding for organizations and projects supporting "Internet freedom." Like many Washington fights, this one makes it harder for the U.S. government to help real people with real problems.
I study how governments seek to stifle and control online dissent. Activists from the Middle East to Asia to the former Soviet states have all been telling me that they suffer from increasingly sophisticated cyber-attacks. Such attacks disable activists' websites at politically crucial times. Email accounts are hacked and computer systems are breached, enabling intruders to install spyware and monitor every electronic move. They are desperate for training and technical help to fight increasingly sophisticated, well-funded adversaries.
The cyber-attacks are one of several new and intractable problems faced by online activists, alongside the older and more clear-cut problem of Internet censorship. A number of repressive governments, including Vietnam, Iran and China, block local Internet users from accessing politically sensitive overseas websites, as well as commercial social networking services like Facebook and Twitter. Anybody can get around this blockage if they know how to use what is called "circumvention technology." Several U.S-based organizations have developed a range of circumvention tools.
Tools for circumventing censorship are indeed important for activists. But they do nothing to protect against cyber-attacks, or to address a growing number of other ways that governments work to prevent activists from using the Internet to access information, get their message out, and organize. Still, many in Congress and the media have bought into the fantasy that all the U.S. needs to do is put enough money into these circumvention tools, and one in particular—and freedom will flood through the crumbling firewalls.
Since 2007, Congress has inserted a total of $50 million of earmarks into the State Department's budget to fund organizations dedicated to fighting Internet censorship. One group that has been lobbying hard for the money is the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, run mainly by practitioners of the Falun Gong, a religious sect banned in China. The GIFC has produced a suite of circumvention tools that work well, as long as the user doesn't mind that GIFC engineers can see their unencrypted communications, or that the security of the tool has not been vetted by independent experts.
The GIFC has found powerful allies in Mark Palmer, who was U.S. ambassador to Hungary when the Iron Curtain fell, and Michael Horowitz, a former Reagan administration official and longtime advocate for human rights and religious freedom. They argue that if the GIFC can get sufficient funding to scale up their tools, authoritarian regimes will be brought to their knees.
The State Department has come under fire in the Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times for failing to support GIFC. And it's true that of the $20 million already allocated, most went to other groups that are less radioactive as far as U.S.-China relations are concerned. Some of these groups work to help activists with training and security against surveillance, cyber-attacks and other threats, in addition to circumventing censorship.
In August, $1.5 million out of $5 million available for 2009 was finally awarded by the State Department to the GIFC via the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The bidding process for a remaining $30 million is expected to start soon. With the mid-term elections now finished, we can look forward to a new surge in the war over who gets to be hero of the fairy tale "Toppling the Iron Curtain 2.0"
Meanwhile in real life, the human rights watchdog organization Freedom House warns of a "global freedom recession." They point to a decrease in online freedom even in many countries that engage in little or no website blocking.
Take Russia, for example. In a new book published by the Open Net Initiative, "Access Controlled," University of Toronto scholars Rafal Rohozinski and Ronald Deibert point out that while the Russian government doesn't block many websites, it stifles online dissent in a range of other ways. Government critics in Russia face cyber-attacks, surveillance, and good old-fashioned intimidation.
In a growing number of countries including China, domestic Internet companies are enlisted in this effort through regulatory pressures. Laws and mechanisms originally meant to enforce copyright, protect children and fight online crime are abused to silence or intimidate political critics.
In real life, conceiving and implementing an effective set of policies, programs, and tools for promoting a free and open global Internet requires hard work by both the public and private sectors. This work has barely begun.
A range of fast-evolving technical problems requires an array of solutions. Activists around the world need technical assistance and training in order to fight cyber-attacks more effectively. We need more coordination between human rights activists, technology companies and policy makers just to understand the problems, and how they can be expected to evolve in the next few years.
What's more, existing research indicates that many of the problems aren't technical, but rather political, legal, regulatory and even social. Other obstacles to free expression are probably best addressed by the private sector: Social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter should be urged to adhere to business practices that maximize the safety of activists using their platforms.
Circumvention technology is one tactic to support access to information and online dissent. It makes sense to keep funding these tools, so long as activists are given choice. On their own, however, they are not the silver bullet that many claim. The State Department and Congress need to approach freedom of speech issues strategically, based on a clear understanding of purpose and effect.