Today in Washington, Secretary of State Clinton reiterated the State Department’s commitment to an Internet freedom policy in a speech at George Washington University. Rebecca MacKinnon, journalist, free speech activist, and expert on Chinese Internet censorship, provided some on the spot analysis immediately following Clinton’s words. MacKinnon made an interesting, and timely, point: there are limits to directly funding certain groups. “I think one of the reasons that the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions were successful was that they were really home grown, grass roots. At the end of the day, the people in the countries concerned need to really want change and drive that change.”
MacKinnon parsed the considerable complexity of advocating for Internet freedom in the context of Wikileaks and electronic surveillance in other areas of the federal government. For those interested, she elaborated on the issues inherent in this nexus of government and technology in her Senate testimony last year. At some point this winter, there will be a hearing on “CALEA 2″ in the United States Congress that’s going to be worth paying close attention to for anyone tracking Internet freedom closer to home, so to speak.
Should the U.S. support Internet freedom through technology, whether it’s an “app” or other means? To date, so far the State Department has allocated only $20 million of the total funding it has received from Congress, according to a report on Internet censorship from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee obtained by the AFP. (Hat tip to Nick Kristof on that one).
Clinton defended the slow rollout of funding today in her speech (emphasis is added):
“The United States continues to help people in oppressive Internet environments get around filters, stay one step ahead of the censors, the hackers, and the thugs who beat them up or imprison them for what they say online. While the rights we seek to protect are clear, the various ways that these rights are violated are increasingly complex. Some have criticized us for not pouring funding into a single technology—but there is no silver bullet in the struggle against Internet repression. There’s no “app” for that. 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.”
The caution in spending may well also be driven by the issues that the State Department encountered with Haystack, a much celebrated technology for Internet freedom tool that turned out to be closer to a fraud than a phenomenon.
There may be no silver bullet to deliver Internet freedom to the disconnected or filtered masses, per se, but there are more options beyond the Tor Project that people in repressive regimes can leverage. Today, MIT’s Technology Review reported on an app for dissidents that encrypts phone and text communications:
Two new applications for Android devices, called RedPhone and TextSecure, were released last week by Whisper Systems, a startup created by security researchers Moxie Marlinspike and Stuart Anderson. The apps are offered free of charge to users in Egypt, where protesters opposing ex-president Hosni Mubarak have clashed with police for weeks. The apps use end-to-end encryption and a private proxy server to obfuscate who is communicating with whom, and to secure the contents of messages or phone conversations. “We literally have been working night and day for the last two weeks to get an international server infrastructure set up,” says Anderson.
No word on whether they’ve received funding from State yet. For more on today’s speech, read the full report on the State department’s Internet freedom policy at the Huffington Post, Ethan Zuckerman or the ever sharp Nancy Scola on #NetFreedom, which does, in fact, now look like a “big deal.”