Digital freedom, liberty, civility, love

Internet freedom is a more complex problem than meets the eye

Originally published in The Tech on February 22, 2011

While it is certainly encouraging to see that the current U.S. government is intent on bringing more freedom of expression and opportunities for democratic action to people in repressed regimes around the world, the latest effort at new legislation for improving Internet access to such regions may understandably leave us perplexed.

According to a Feb. 15 New York Times report entitled “U.S. Policy to Address Internet Freedom,” the Obama administration wants to “help people get around barriers in cyberspace while making it harder for autocratic governments to use the same technology to repress dissent.” These goals were reiterated by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in her speech on global Internet freedom as a fundamental right, echoing a sentiment she expressed in an address a year ago.

In her Feb. 15 speech, Clinton expanded on the new policy, denouncing the repressive cyberspace practices of countries such as China and Syria, and spelled out the U.S. government’s credo when it comes to online values. She listed three “universal principles, or challenges for the Internet.” These were “liberty and security, transparency and confidentiality, and free expression while fostering tolerance and civility.”

No doubt noble goals. Who would argue against defending freedoms and rescuing the distressed and repressed? These commitments are all the weightier in the wake of the Wikileaks developments their recently revealed implications for the U.S. government.

However, while rights activists, freedom fighters, and democracy supporters certainly nod in agreement with Clinton’s proclaimed principles, it is tempting to assume that many eyes and minds on Tuesday were squarely focused on the real crux of the speech: the figures.

Clinton said that “the United States has awarded more than $20 million in competitive grants to technologists and activists finding ways to fight against ‘Internet repression,’ and will award $25 million more this year.” There must have been a collective sigh of relief amongst these attentive ears on Tuesday, as the government had been dragging its feet to elaborate on the new policy and release $30 million in Congressional financing earmarked for such free cyberspace protection activities.

In addition to the head-scratching phenomenon of seeing the U.S. government promoting free thought and expression in cyberspace in other countries while simultaneously applying restrictions and surveillance on Americans with increasing zeal since 9/11, what Clinton’s Internet speech boils down to is money; specifically, how much, and when the government will give it.

Let’s admit it, the administration’s new policy is not about such lovely things as Internet freedom, democracy, human rights, liberty, and the United States’ love and devotion to all the deserving repressed people out there. As the U.S. media’s coverage of the speech clearly shows, this is a business story.

Of course, it is no breaking news that American economic and strategic interests, here as in other areas, are the implicit priorities, but let’s call a spade a spade. It never hurts to skeptically scratch the surface of these flowery narratives we are being delivered by the ruling elite and its minions — the mainstream media.

Curiously, critics of how government funds have been spent in the past are especially interested in supporting circumvention technologies and services — which enables users to bypass censorship — as opposed to financing other means of providing online security, such as teaching users how to reinforce the privacy of their e-mail accounts. In fact, judging by media reports, the core of their criticism is that the State Department did not spend the assigned $30 million specifically on circumvention.

I am no economist, nor a business major; the rules of corporate finance evade me, and my math skills are questionable. But still, it is clear that the lure of certain profits is lying just below the surface of all the concern for the poor people in Syria and Iran deprived of control-free Internet.

However, some online control circumventing services have not only proven their crucial role in autocratic countries — such as when they were heavily used by Iranian activists during the 2009 presidential election — but they have also seen soaring demand amid the current revolutionary events in the Middle East and Northern Africa. In just three days, “120,000 people — most of them Egyptian — have downloaded Tor software, which helps activists protect their identity from surveillance by repressive regimes and get around blocked sites,” said Tor Executive Director Andrew Lewman in remarks reported by The Boston Globe on Jan. 30. Tor, one of the major online privacy and anonymity systems on the market, is produced by a non-profit based in Massachusetts, which the Globe reports receives about 75 percent of its funding from the U.S. government.

In fact, circumvention software experts and developers have been increasingly busy lately, improving and providing a tool whose value is undeniable in communication-challenged environments. Recent unrest in repressed regions, increased citizens’ awareness and activism, and growing evidence of the benefits of digital mobile communications tools and services, from cell phones to online social networks, are certainly combining to contribute to the flurry of activity in circumvention technologies creative circles.

Indeed, as the Globe reports about Tor in its Jan. 30 “Foreign activists stay covered online” article, Tor had already laid groundwork in Tunisia by the time the protests started there last December, so Tunisians were able to react when the government began monitoring Facebook and Twitter.

The article also noted, “As protests swelled in Egypt … so many people rushed to download Tor that one its servers crashed …”

Given the rather sudden (at least to outside observers) eruptions in Tunisia and Egypt, the Tor team certainly shows premonitory talent for sniffing out trouble and cyber repression from miles away, and the need for bypassing them, as well as the ability to provide for that need in advance.

There is no doubt that a free, open Internet has done wonders for securing democratic debate, activism, and other rights in both free and restrictive regions of the world, and Clinton’s words on the best recipe for an open society — justice and peace — certainly rings true.

Yet, in addition to this intriguing activity by some Internet access service providers in specific regions, well before the unleashing of key events whose victims virtually depend on the services provided, it is tempting to see the Internet in general as a fiercely guarded territory in prey to sharp-fanged players and their personal interests. But while it is crucial to keep working on reaching those ideals of digital freedom, individual liberty and rights, and tolerance and civility online, to name just a few of the government’s proclaimed most cherished values, it is also important to keep our minds open for diverging narratives, unexpected possible scenarios, hidden interests, and our ears receptive to the muffled but sweet sound of dripping dollars in the background.