Internet freedom cannot wait

Saturday, February 5, 2011; 6:15 PM

IN EGYPT, the Internet is back on. After a few grueling days in which the government practically severed its nation's connections to the rest of the world, costing millions of dollars, the price became too high, and the switch was flipped.

But those days were telling. That the government felt the need to shut down the Internet in a time of protest reveals the power this medium has - both to magnify the voice of dissent and to threaten oppressive regimes that seek to silence it.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has repeatedly affirmed the commitment of the United States to the cause of Internet freedom. "We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas," Clinton said in a January 2010 speech. "And we recognize that the world's information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it." Last week she restated the U.S. commitment to social media and 21st-century statecraft.

But words are one thing, and deeds are another.

Congress allocated $30 million in the fiscal 2010 budget for the State Department to fund Internet freedom. But 16 months later, none of the funds have been allocated. The legislation was narrowly tailored to focus on expanding access for users in closed societies by supporting field-tested techniques for circumventing censorship and firewalls. But the State Department's Request for Statements of Interest issued last month seems unacceptably broad. It would divide the money into a series of small grants, soliciting proposals for nine categories of projects, including such goals as "Building the Technology Capacity of Digital Activists and Civil Society." These are valid missions, but they were not the designated purpose of these funds. Yes, there is no one answer to the challenge of freedom on the Internet. But there are also some proven solutions than can quickly achieve much.

The world reeled when Egypt turned off its Internet to silence the voice of protest. But there are more subtle ways of shutting down the Web. In China, the Great Firewall imprisons millions of citizens behind a screen of online censorship. And on Thursday, Reuters reported that China's state-sponsored search engine Baidu was no longer returning results for queries about the situation in Cairo. "The Web," a Chinese official noted in a Wikileaked memo, "is fundamentally controllable." As long as U.S. support for a free and open Internet remains simply words, this conclusion will hold.

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