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There's More to "Internet Freedom" than Circumvention, Says a Talkative State Department

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, March 24 2011

As the profile rises of the U.S. State Department's "Internet freedom" agenda, it's attracting critique and critics, like parsings by Evgeny Morozov or the battle happening now on the Hill over whether some of the department's $50 million in targeted funding should be handed over to the Broadcasting Board of Governors to focus on anti-censorship tools. But State hasn't launched a concerted effort in the public square to defend and explain its work. Until now, perhaps. There are signs that the department is coming to the understanding that a defense of their Internet freedom agenda probably needs to begin at home. To wit, earlier today the State Department held an on-background press call with a "State Department official" to answer questions about its work in the Internet space.

"Circumvention technology is critically important, but it just isn't enough," said the official in opening remarks. For now, here are quick hits on what was asked and answered:

  • Why hasn't the State Department been more aggressive in resisting efforts in Congress to redirect its funding to the BBG? "This is a very new area, we're still figuring out where the lines are, and we're not willing to put people at risk" while they do it -- arguing, in short, that they'd need to expose more of the work they fund through grantee activists and technologists to make a case for keeping their dollars.
  • What of the criticisms, made by Senator Dick Lugar and others, that State has moved too slowly in spending its funds? "There's pressure to push money out the door, to just spend money, but we're taking a strategic approach." In opening remarks, the official described that approach as being that of venture capitalist, funding an array of projects while avoiding "hare-brained schemes."
  • Did the State Department make a mistake in letting take hold in the public imagination a definition of "Internet freedom" that includes a far-ranging collection of projects (of, arguably, different degrees of politicization), from simply advocating for open Internet access to building mobile tiplines in Juarez, Mexico, to sending executives from American companies on "tech dels" Moscow, Baghdad, and elsewhere? Nope. "Those [referring in particular to work like that in Juarez] are possible because of a foundational commitment on the Internet" and a "principle commitment to human rights."
  • Where does the State Department get the intelligence to know, for example, that activists in other countries find their calls dropped or tracked when they mention the details of political protests? "Our embassies increasingly have relationships with activists," and part of State's work in the field is developing those human sensors who can alert them to Internet blocking, cell phone monitoring, and more.
  • What does the U.S. State Department make of reports this week that Iran might have been behind HTTPS hacking attempts? "It really points to something we've not seen in this context but is another iteration of a problem, and we need people at the intersection of technology and human rights to look at this situation and develop a technology against it." Elsewhere in the call, the official said that "repressive regimes are doing really bad stuff, and they're spending billions of dollars to do it."

The next step in State's shoring up of the public perception of its Internet freedom agenda, said the official, is "working with our grantees to find stories we can tell."