This month, amid record profligacy on Capitol Hill, Sens. Sam Brownback (R., Kan.) and Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) pushed for spending that all Americans can celebrate: $30 million of the Senate’s State Department appropriations bill will go to support digital tools for undermining Internet censorship. If the initiative is properly implemented, the politically repressed from Havana to Rangoon will have cause for celebration.
Authoritarian regimes spend fortunes censoring the Internet because they fear the subversive potential of digital communications. China and Iran are world leaders in this regard—models for other rogues such as Syria and Saudi Arabia.
In countering the Green Revolution this summer, Iran unveiled a new high-tech apparatus for blocking some Internet communications outright, while monitoring others in order to intimidate dissenters. China uses more than 40,000 censors in a dozen government agencies to limit Web content via the so-called Great Firewall. As Chinese President Hu Jintao said in 2007: “Whether we can cope with the Internet is a matter that affects the development of socialist culture, the security of information and the stability of the state.”
The Soviet Union felt similarly about the Berlin Wall. Just as East Germans diminished Soviet legitimacy by escaping across Checkpoint Charlie, “hacktivists” today do the same by breaching Internet cyberwalls. Which is why, as the bill says, the Senate is funding groups with “scalable, field tested programs . . . for large numbers of users living in closed societies.”
Arguably the most important of these groups is the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GIF), whose software has been critical in Iran. During the protests of June 20 alone, more than one million Iranians used GIF tools to visit 390 million pages on the uncensored Internet.
GIF has an impressive history of aiding anti-authoritarian movements in real time. When Burmese monks and others rose up against their military rulers in August 2007, its programs saw a threefold increase in average daily hits from Burma. During the March 2008 anti-Beijing protests in Tibet, Tibetan usage of GIF’s tools rose by 300%.
The consortium was launched in 2000 by Chinese-American practitioners of Falun Gong, the spiritual group persecuted by Beijing. Using computers in data centers scattered around the world, it provides a series of programs that can be easily downloaded or distributed by email. The programs allow users to bypass censored domestic servers and access the Internet via GIF’s foreign servers. Users in Damascus can make the same Google searches as users in New York, without leaving a trace.
The widespread use of GIF’s technologies among Falun Gong practitioners and others has infuriated Beijing. So concerned is China with GIF that when the American technology giant Cisco solicited the Chinese government’s business in 2002, it did so by explaining how its technologies could help “combat the ‘Falun Gong’ evil cult.”
But Cisco’s pitch—contained in a PowerPoint presentation later obtained by GIF and presented before Congress last year—was for naught. Despite Beijing’s efforts to neutralize it, GIF has become so popular that it’s had trouble accommodating demand.
World demand approaches 10 million unique users per day, but GIF has capacity for only about 1.2 million. So when Iranians flooded its servers last month, GIF had to block usage temporarily to preserve capacity. Iranians sent the group thousands of messages pleading for restoration. Without GIF’s tools, one user wrote, “we have no contact with true data and true news.”
Were $30 million added to its volunteer-driven operation, GIF would reportedly be able to accommodate more than 50 million unique users per day.
But this opportunity could yet be squandered. First, members of the House and Senate will decide in conference whether to appropriate the Senate’s full $30 million, or a sum closer to the $15 million contained in the House’s version of the bill.
More worrying is that Congress’s funding will go to the State Department, where deference to the world’s worst regimes too often takes precedence over human rights. Funding programs like GIF will doubtless anger leaders in Beijing and Tehran with whom the Obama administration seeks engagement. Yet pursuing the favor of such leaders by misallocating these Internet freedom funds would be a grave mistake.
It would not be unprecedented, though. The 2004 North Korea Human Rights Act was another welcome congressional effort that would have furthered human rights, in that case by aiding North Korean refugees. The law angered Beijing, which opposes anything that might encourage North Koreans to flee their neo-Stalinist prison. So the State Department—unjustifiably hoping that China would help the U.S. disarm North Korea—ignored or undermined the law’s intentions at every turn, severely limiting diplomatic, legal and humanitarian assistance to refugees.
Will the State Department again bow to tyrants, or follow Congress’s guidelines? Millions of would-be cyber-dissidents are waiting.