Time to reboot our push for global Internet freedom
Last Tuesday 215,646 Internet users in Iran evaded their regime to visit sites such as Facebook, Twitter and RadioFarda.com, the U.S.-funded Persian-language news service. In Syria, 14,886 people freely surfed; in Vietnam, 10,612; in Saudi Arabia, 14,691; in China, 18,000.
I know this because I saw the internal logs of a company called UltraReach, which created and manages a firewall-breaching system that is allowing as many as half a million people a day to visit Web sites banned by their governments, and circumvent or avoid detection. To watch the traffic stream through the company's servers is to see a parade of the world's most oppressed people. In the few minutes I watched I also saw Cubans, Burmese, Uzbeks, Belarusians, Algerians, Cambodians and Libyans traveling via an Internet link to Northern California, where they were able to visit any non-pornographic site without being blocked or identified.
That the technology created by UltraReach and an affiliated company called Freegate works is not a matter of debate. Its success has been recognized from the State Department to the Chinese government, which has devoted enormous resources to trying to defeat it, so far unsuccessfully. The question is what is to be done. The companies' volunteer founders and operators say that if they could get $30 million in funding they could ramp up their server networks to accommodate millions more users -- and effectively destroy the Internet controls of Iran and most other dictatorships.
Since 2007, a few in Congress have been trying to get that funding by putting earmarks into the State Department budget -- a total of $50 million so far. Yet the firewall-busting firms, which have formed an entity called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, have yet to receive a dime. In fact, $35 million of the funds has yet to be spent, even though it was included in State's budgets for 2009 and 2010.
You'd think State would be eager to act. After all, Hillary Clinton gave a major speech last January saying that the promotion of Internet freedom would be a top priority. Her senior aide for human rights and democracy, Assistant Secretary Michael Posner, says that defeating Internet censorship could be "a game-changer" in countries like Iran.
So why has nothing happened? The answer appears to be a mix of bureaucratic slowness, confusion over policy and -- just possibly -- a desire to avoid offending the Chinese government, which has denounced the Internet coalition as "anti-China forces engaged in anti-China activities."
In fact, the founders of UltraReach are members of the Falun Gong movement, which has been banned and heavily persecuted by Beijing. Its chief technologist, who met with me last week, left China for Silicon Valley after the 1989 Tiananmen square massacre. This man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he has relatives in China, said that the circumvention program was written in 2001-02 to help Chinese get around the regime's powerful firewall. But the software, which can be carried on a thumb drive, quickly spread. How much so became clear in June 2009, when Iranians erupted in protest over a stolen presidential election. More than 1 million Iranians tried to use UltraReach's system, causing its servers to crash. Since then about half of the system's users have been Iranian.
The Bush administration received the first $15 million put in State's budget for this technology through the efforts of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), among others. It gave most of the money to a company that specializes in training journalists. The next appropriation, of $5 million, was inherited by the Obama administration; it took more than 18 months to dispose of it. Of that funding, $1.5 million was given in August to the Broadcasting Board of Governors for distribution to the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. But the BBG has yet to turn over the funds. Meanwhile, State has not even begun the process of distributing the $30 million in its budget for fiscal 2010, which ended three weeks ago.
Posner says that's because State has been busy developing a detailed strategy for implementing Clinton's Internet freedom goals. It will, he said, be aimed not just at busting Internet firewalls but also at heading off governments' moves to regulate the Internet. So while funding for circumvention "will be an important piece" of the program, so will research into technologies and training, including of State's own personnel. Posner told me, "the money should follow the strategy."
That sounds reasonable. Yet while State is polishing its policy and preparing yet more training programs, Iranians and people from dozens of other countries are trying to get free access to the Internet. The technology exists to give it to them. State has the money in hand to pay for it. Yet after years of delay, the agency still hesitates to act. Posner says this has nothing to do with fear of offending China; but last year The Post quoted an unidentified State Department official saying the opposite. Either way, it's a poor record.