Congress trims State’s Internet freedom funds

In a rebuke to the State Department, Congress has cut its budget for promoting Internet freedom and directed the government’s international broadcasting arm to take over some of the job of helping people in repressive societies reach censored Web sites.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has made Internet freedom a signature issue. But State Department officials have battled with lawmakers and others over how to spend tens of millions of dollars intended to promote the “freedom to connect.” The issue has taken on added urgency as demonstrators in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries have used social media sites such as Facebook to organize uprisings.

More on this Story

View all Items in this Story

The 2011 budget bill that Congress is expected to pass Thursday gives the State Department $20 million for Internet freedom projects, a one-third decrease from last year. It awards $10 million in Internet freedom funds to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and other government-funded media outlets.

Lawmakers have complained in letters to Clinton that the State Department has sat on $30 million in 2010 funds aimed at helping people in Iran, China and other countries to connect to the Internet.

“Twelve months elapsed before the State Department moved to disburse some $30 million in funds specifically appropriated for Internet freedom promotion, including the development of Internet censorship circumvention technology. Such technology should be given a much higher priority by the U.S. government,” said a report in February by the staff of Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Supporters of firewall-evading technology — programs spread by e-mail and compact memory devices — say its use has expanded rapidly in countries with repressive governments. Some supporters worry that diplomats have been lukewarm about promoting anti-firewall technology because of concerns about hurting diplomatic relations.

State Department officials say that is not the case. They say they needed time to draw up a strategy to respond to governments that control Internet use.

“Circumvention technology is an important piece of the Internet freedom puzzle. It’s not the only piece,” said Daniel B. Baer, deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights.

The State Department is supporting a range of projects, including training activists to protect themselves from government surveillance and the development of a “panic button” that would delete the cellphone contact list of an arrested activist.

Prominent Internet-freedom activists and researchers sent a letter to Congress this month supporting the State Department and opposing the transfer of money to the broadcasting board. One problem, the writers said, was that the board was associated with promoting U.S. government views.

“This is different from the much broader United States policy of promoting global Internet freedom, which will be weakened if it is conflated with an attempt by the United States to define the content made available to people in repressive regimes,” the letter said.

Lugar has argued that the Broadcasting Board of Governors is more adept at using technology to evade government firewalls and censoring.

“Given their daily struggles with China, Iran, Belarus, Syria, Venezuela and other closed societies, the BBG is our government’s leading expert on getting through electronic firewalls,” Lugar wrote to Clinton this month.

A Senate staff member working on the issue said that using the broadcasting board to provide access to the Internet was a “double bonus,” because the technology would take users first to a particular Web site, perhaps the Voice of America’s.

If the State Department provides the technology, “it’s just going to take them straight to Google. That’s kind of stupid, given all the money we put into international broadcasting,” said the staff member, who was not authorized to comment on the record.

Baer said the policy is intended to support people who are fighting Internet censorship, not to promote a U.S. message.

”To the extent this is seen as about what we do, and not what people in oppressive environments are doing, it tarnishes the agenda,” he said.

 
Read what others are saying