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The Battle Over Internet Freedom

5:13 PM, Oct 26, 2010 • By KELLEY CURRIE
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The Battle Over Internet Freedom

In the Washington Post yesterday, Jackson Diehl had a column on the failure of the State Department to provide funding to something called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, a collection of providers of gizmos that can circumvent firewalls constructed on the Internet by repressive regimes. Diehl, an articulate commentator on the democracy agenda and democracy promotion, took the current and previous administrations to task for failing to deliver millions of dollars in funding that was earmarked for the State Department to spend on promoting global Internet freedom.  

As was reported in May in the same paper, this is the latest volley in a long and sordid tale. In the past four years, Congress has given the State Department around $50 million dollars for efforts to promote global Internet freedom. The first earmark, $15 million in 2007, was obtained by the aforementioned Consortium through a concerted lobbying effort.  To be clear: Without this lobbying effort on the part of the Consortium, there would have been no money for this purpose in that year's bill.  Although the funding bill did not specify a "hard" earmark for the Consortium, the State Department was well aware of the legislative background of where the money came from but disregarded this intent and gave the money to other groups, which have so far spent it on a nice report (approximately $1.5 million to Freedom House), and, well, nothing ($13 million to Internews -- the journalist training organization Diehl alludes to but does not name in his editorial).  As Diehl correctly notes, the Obama/Clinton State Department has done precious little with the remaining $35 million appropriated in subsequent years. 

The whole thing is a mess, perpetrated by not one but two different administrations -- and I certainly share Diehl's frustration with the poverty of the State Department's efforts here. Interestingly, he treads quite lightly on one of the main reasons that the Global Internet Freedom Consortium continues to be denied and slow rolled funding under this initiative: its connection with the Falun Gong spiritual movement which the Chinese government has labeled "an evil cult."  My experience suggests this fact played a larger role than he intimated in the State Department's decision not to fund the GIFC.  But while Diehl's heart is in the right place in wanting State to get off the dime, and the GIFC has undoubtedly been badly treated, there are in fact good reasons these funds should be directed elsewhere - not that State seems to understand or be able to articulate them after four years of struggling with this effort.  

For starters, the problem is more complicated than mere access.  As most anyone who lives in China and uses the Internet there can tell you, circumvention technology is relatively cheap and widely available. The thing is, aside from expatriates and a relatively small coterie of scholars, dissidents, journalists and the like, who seek a less filtered online experience, the overwhelming majority of Chinese Internet users seem quite content with their circumscribed version of the Internet and neither use nor seek out such technologies.  For the aforementioned exceptions, as well as those who find the pornography and online gambling selections within the Great Firewall insufficient, virtual private networks or VPNs are all the rage. For everyone else, there are Chinese-language clones of Google, Facebook, Twitter and pretty much everything else, tailored to their needs to ensure that they don't feel they are missing out on anything. Within the bands of what is allowed by the Chinese government's complex, multi-layered censorship regime, there is a lively Chinese Internet experience that evinces a high degree of user satisfaction. The fact that the average Chinese user cannot access Facebook or various human rights NGO websites is largely meaningless for them simply because they are not trying nor do they have much desire to.

This is no accident, nor is it social commentary on the vapidity of the average Internet user. Rather, Internet users in China and other countries are carefully and inconspicuously given just enough online freedom to keep them from feeling constrained, while the content they are exposed to is subject to and shaped by layered and self-reinforcing controls that are mostly seamless and invisible.  For a better understanding how much more sophisticated and effective the Chinese government's Internet control regime has become, and how little it now relies on simple "blocking" to achieve this control, there are two recent scholarly pieces that deep dive into what makes this problem so difficult to crack and so damaging to overall efforts to promote human rights and democracy in these countries.  

Rebecca MacKinnon is a sharp observer of governments' – especially, but not exclusively, the Chinese government's -  efforts to manage Internet and communications technologies to its own advantage.  She recently delivered a paper on "networked authoritarianism" - the term she has coined to describe the efforts of the Chinese and other authoritarian regimes to harness the benefits of these technologies while removing the potential for these same technologies to be used in a way that threatens the regime's monopoly on political power. MacKinnon notes that Chinese authorities, both following and leading a trend of other control freak regimes, is moving beyond a reliance on "first generation" censorship techniques of blocking access and filtering content, and is increasingly reliant on more sophisticated means of shaping users' online experiences in ways that are largely unseen and unnoticed by users.  More importantly, MacKinnon innon demonstrates that these authoritarian regimes have found a path not only to keep the Internet from undermining them, but for using it to bolster their legitimacy.  She explores this counter-intuitive phenomenon most closely in the Chinese context, but notes that Beijing is hardly an outlier in its sophisticated use of new media and technologies. Her research and findings on these topics have important implications for U.S. policy, and should be required reading for anyone interested in the potential of the Internet and other communications technologies to support the growth of freedom worldwide.  

Likewise, cybersecurity experts Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski, the founders of the Information Warfare Monitor and the OpenNet Initiative, have an important new article in the Journal of Democracy that explores the duality of information technology: How the same technologies used by dissidents can also, and often more effectively, be harnessed by both criminals and dictatorial regimes. (OpenNet played a role in uncovering and identifying something it called "Ghost Net" - a sophisticated global cyber-espionage effort by Chinese hackers that infiltrated dozens of high-value political targets, including foreign governments, financial institutions, media, and NGOs.)  The authors highlight the range of techniques these regimes are using that go far beyond crude website blocking.  These "next generation" controls include: legal measures such as slander and libel laws, as well as regulatory frameworks that create a climate of fear and intimidation; informal pressure on private companies that manage the Internet backbone; keyword-level filtering and other outsourcing of censorship to private ISPs; requirements that Internet cafes track user information; surgical "just in time" blocking; patriotic hacking; and targeted surveillance and social-malware attacks on activists and dissidents.  Like MacKinnon, the authors see the most pernicious aspect of all this as being the regime's sub rosa role in manipulating the average Internet user - who remains largely unaware of how controlled his online experience actually is, or by whom his Internet experience is being controlled.

Given this broader context, it is clear that the Internet freedom initiatives under consideration by the U.S. and other democracies to date are well-intentioned but woefully inadequate and poorly matched to the actual scope and nature of the problem they are intended to address. These policies seem largely based on misconceptions and wishful thinking about the role that these media and telecommunication forms can play in shaping the political landscape in modern authoritarian states. In this perverse context, authoritarian governments have given their control agencies enormous flexibility and shown great nimbleness in pursuing a complex approach to information control, while Western governments seem perpetually several steps behind. Incentives are currently poorly aligned for the most creative elements of the emerging technocracy to focus its energy on the side of freedom. Policy approaches that rely primarily on developing and disseminating circumvention and anti-blocking tools, as well as encouraging dictatorial regimes to "open" the online space available to their subjects, are fundamentally misplaced. Policymakers need to radically rethink the current approach.

Rather than trying to pick winners and predict the trends in technology, or rely on an assumption that these communications tools will objectively support liberal democratic outcomes, U.S. efforts in this area have to be rooted in a broader recognition that liberal democracies remain engaged in a struggle against authoritarian value systems that are different from our own, and that this - not any inherent quality of the emerging means of communications - shapes the cyber battle space.  As Deiber and Rohozinski correctly point out: "The struggles over freedom of speech, access to information, privacy protections, and other human-rights issues that now plague cyberspace ultimately pose political problems that are grounded in deeply rooted differences." 

This also means that we have to address our own complicated relationship with privacy, security, and accessibility in cyberspace. While we continue to debate the extent to which the U.S. government has the right to monitor citizens' email, authoritarian regimes are moving ahead to the next level of surveillance and communications management without any liberal-democratic constraints.  One of the important contributions our society can make toward the development of a communications space that ultimately serves liberal-democratic ends, however, is to keep having that debate, and to keep having it in the open and make sure such open discussion about the rules of the road emerges as the global standard. 

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