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U.S. risks China's ire with decision to fund software maker tied to Falun Gong
Horowitz assumed that GIFC would get funding, but it wasn't awarded anything and the bulk of the money went to a consortium led by Internews, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization that works with international media.
Horowitz then began lobbying reporters and editorial writers about the case. In the past year, columnists at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and the editorial page of The Washington Post have called for the State Department to fund GIFC. In March, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) threatened to put a hold on State's appointments unless the funds were allocated. Congress had subsequently earmarked $5 million for the issue in 2009 and $30 million for 2010.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a State Department official said the decision to offer funding to GIFC was "done on the merits of its technology" and was not a response to political pressure. Others aren't so sure.
"The politics of this on Capitol Hill have been such that I can also see how the State Department was under immense pressure to give them funding," said Rebecca MacKinnon, a visiting fellow at Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy.
Experts on Internet issues said they had mixed feelings about GIFC getting the award. On one hand, said Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, GIFC's software works well. "They've built some good tools," he said.
But Zuckerman worries about two issues. First, GIFC has refused to share its code with other Internet researchers, raising the possibility that China or other governments could crack it and use it to monitor people who believe they have evaded government detection.
Second, the tools that GIFC provides are employed by, at most, 5 percent of Internet users, even in places such as China or Iran where the Web is tightly controlled.
"What do you do for the other 95 percent?" he asked. "There's been a lot of hype about 'punching a hole through the Great Firewall.' There's a danger of overstating the benefits of this solution. You just can't circumvent your way around censorship."