What Hillary Clinton, Google can do about censorship in China

By Caylan Ford
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; 2:14 PM

Google announced last week that it is no longer willing to censor its Chinese searches and may soon be closing its offices in China, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be rolling out a new policy initiative concerning internet freedom on Thursday.

But if the State Department and internet giants really want to promote free access to the Internet worldwide, the most effective thing they could do is to support the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GIF).

GIF is a small outlet run by a group of Chinese-American computer scientists. Over the last ten years, they have developed a suite of censorship-circumvention software that allows users to safely evade internet firewalls and surveillance. They have no offices or funding. Their scientists work day jobs and pay for their operations out of their own pockets. Yet in spite of their obvious limitation, they are responsible for approximately 90 percent of all anti-censorship internet traffic in China and Iran.

When protests erupted in Burma in 2007 and its military junta moved to violently suppress demonstrations, it was GIF software that activists used to relay images, video and information to the rest of the world. When riots erupted in Tibet in 2008, GIF's traffic from the region rose by 300 percent. And when Iranians took to the streets to demonstrate against suspected election fraud in 2009, over 1 million Iranians per day were using GIF software to communicate with the outside world. Without GIF, there could have been no "Twitter revolution.

But GIF servers, which can currently support only 1.5 million unique users per day, nearly crashed in the aftermath of the Iranian election. With a small amount of funding or with private donations of server bandwidth, GIF could increase its capacity to support 50 million users.

Of course, even with more resources, anti-censorship technology can still be thwarted. Governments can simply restrict access to the Internet altogether, as Iran did last summer, or as Chinese authorities did in Xinjiang province recently. China's "green dam youth escort," an unwieldy pre-installed software that censors politically sensitive information in individual computers, could also significantly undercut the efficacy of circumvention tools.

But in a country such as China, whose economy is now deeply tied to the Web, shutting down the Internet or crippling computers with "green dam"-like software is enormously unpopular and expensive. For every dollar spent on censorship-circumvention, repressive regimes must sacrifice hundreds or thousands of dollars to counter it.

Even so, GIF hasn't received a penny of funding from either the U.S. government or private corporations. That could be because the software engineers behind GIF are adherents of Falun Gong, a Buddhist spiritual discipline that is banned and brutally repressed in China. Since 1999, hundreds of thousands of Falun Gong believers have been sent to forced labor camps and tortured, and the Communist Party has blocked information about Falun Gong on the Internet and in the media. GIF engineers began their work largely so that their compatriots in China could access and share information about the persecuted spiritual practice. In a Washington Post article last week, an unnamed U.S. official was quoted as saying that "the Chinese would go ballistic" if GIF received government funding.

But any truly effective measures to promote Internet freedom will irk dictatorships. If the U.S. government wishes to promote internet freedom, it must be prepared to cope with the blow-back.

The United States already devotes considerable resources to promoting democratization, press freedom and human rights initiatives every year. For a small fraction of that budget, America can provide free access to information to tens of millions of people.

Caylan Ford is a graduate student in international affairs at the George Washington University. She is a volunteer editor and analyst with the Falun Dafa Information Center, though the views expressed in this article are hers alone.

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