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Moving forward with Internet freedom

Thursday, March 3, 2011; 8:36 PM

IN THE PAST 16 months, the Internet landscape has shifted dramatically. Sixteen months ago, there were no iPads. The number of Twitter users was orders of magnitude smaller. And scarcely 10 percent of phone users had smartphones.

Yet 16 months have passed since the State Department was allotted $30 million in funding for Internet freedom - and not a dollar of it has been spent. During that time Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has delivered two speeches stressing the importance of the issue and committing the department to an aggressive strategy. But while her State Department painstakingly hammers out its approach, oppressive regimes the world over are acting in real time to stifle dissent, strengthen firewalls and threaten online activists - most recently in the Middle East.

Facing a threat from Congress to take away some of the money, State now insists it is finally ready to implement a policy. It aims to provide seed money to a range of initiatives, from software to circumvent the Internet firewalls of dictatorships to the training of dissident bloggers. In the next few weeks, officials say, they will solicit proposals from applicants and will allocate the $30 million within the next few months.

State argues that it has been slow for good reason. Officials point out that when Congress provided the funding, the department had no tech experts on staff or capacity to address the issue. Officials further point out that $5 million in previous funding has been disbursed. But the window for excuses is closing. Congress must watch closely over the coming months to make certain the State Department lives up to its words.

The department has two tasks: to allocate the money quickly to groups capable of spending it efficiently and to show that it is making a difference. That is particularly true of funding for circumvention technologies aimed at helping Internet users overcome the firewalls of China, Iran and other dictatorships - the purpose that congressional sponsors of the funding had in mind. Circumvention software is already being used by hundreds of thousands of people in Iran, and more investment could quickly expand the Green Movement's ability to mobilize on the Internet.

Other technologies - mesh networks to resist government shutdowns of the Internet, anonymity software for activists facing government pressure, to name only two- are also valid and may even be more urgent. But the onus is now on the State Department to demonstrate their importance and to show that progress can be made and measured - and failure detected.

If State fails to live up to its promises, a solution like the one proposed by the ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), would be appropriate. Mr. Lugar would divert at least $8 million of the funds from the State Department to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which has already spent $1.5 million to expand firewall circumvention capacity. State's policy is more balanced - but with democratic revolutions spreading and the Internet fast changing, Congress should not tolerate any more delays.

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