By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010; A01
The State Department has decided to fund a group run mainly by practitioners of Falun Gong, a Buddhist-like sect long considered Enemy No. 1 by the Chinese government, to provide software to skirt Internet censorship across the globe.
State Department officials recently called the group, the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, offering it $1.5 million, according to Shiyu Zhou, one of the group's founders. A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the offer.
The decision, which came as the United States and China have recently moved to improve ties after months of tension, appears likely to irritate Beijing just as the two are set to resume a dialogue on human rights Wednesday for the first time in two years.
"GIFC is an organization run by elements of the Falun Gong cult, which is bent on vilifying the Chinese government with fabricated lies, undermining Chinese social stability and sabotaging China-U.S. relations," said Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "We're strongly opposed to the U.S. government providing whatever assistance to such an anti-China organization."
The decision to fund GIFC followed a three-year lobbying campaign by Washington insiders, congressional pressure and opposition from some human rights advocates and Internet experts. It was also controversial within the Obama administration, sources said, despite the commitment of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Internet freedom.
Some officials worried that Beijing would view as a hostile act U.S. financial support for a group that China says has agitated for the overthrow of its government. Others were concerned the funds would get in the way of the Obama administration's broader engagement with China on issues as varied as climate change, the global financial crisis and efforts to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation in North Korea and Iran.
GIFC was started in 2001 mostly by Chinese-born scientists living in the United States in response to a withering crackdown in China on the Falun Gong sect. China launched the repression in 1999, and scores of practitioners are believed to have died at the hands of China's police and judicial authorities. China considered the Falun Gong movement, which on one day in April 1999 mobilized 20,000 practitioners to surround Communist Party headquarters in Beijing, as the most serious threat to its one-party rule since the student-led protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Members of the group were found throughout the upper ranks of the Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army.
The initial goal of GIFC was to allow practitioners of Falun Gong access to the teachings of Li Hongzhi, the sect's leader, who is believed to live in Queens, N.Y. But by last year Internet users in other countries where governments censor the Internet had begun using its software -- Freegate and Ultrasurf. Falun Gong also put ads encouraging people to join the sect on its software download page.
Freegate figured prominently in the demonstrations that rocked Tehran last year as Iranian dissidents used it to access Twitter and YouTube, which were blocked in Iran, to organize protests and post videos of the marches.
At times, the traffic from Iran was so heavy that GIFC officials had to limit Iranian access, said Zhou, who serves as GIFC's deputy director. He said the main element preventing GIFC from expanding its current system -- which can accommodate 1.5 million users a day -- is its lack of servers.
But, he added, the $1.5 million funding from the U.S. government will not be enough. "We had asked for $4 million," he said. "For this little amount of money we don't expect to achieve the things we really want."
Several years after it started, GIFC caught the attention of Michael Horowitz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former Reagan administration official who for years has advocated for religious freedom. In 2008, Horowitz helped craft a $15 million earmark mandating that the State Department fund organizations dedicated to fighting Internet censorship.
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."