State Department offers $30M in grants for ‘internet freedom’

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By Calder Phillips-Grafflin

Think you have the greatest idea for getting around China’s ‘Great Firewall’? Iran’s internet censorship? If you do, then you’ll be interested in the State Department’s “Joint Request for Statements of Interest: Internet Freedom Programs.”

This brand-new program is the result of Secretary of State Clinton’s speech last year on internet freedom, and it provides for $30 million in grants for individuals and organizations developing technology for “…projects that will foster freedom of expression and the free flow of information on the Internet and other connection technologies…”

There is no doubt about the aim of the program; the request explicitly names East Asia, including China and Burma; the Near East, including Iran; Southeast Asia; the South Caucasus; Eurasia, including Russia; Central Asia; Latin America, including Cuba and Venezuela; and Africa as targets.

None of these are surprising; all of the countries either actively use internet censorship or have other internet restrictions in place. Not surprising either is that many of these countries have hosted cyber-attacks on US corporations and government. Importantly, however, North America and Western Europe are not included, despite regulations in the US and Europe that are clearly censorship.

Proposals for funding are supposed to address at least one of these subjects: Counter-censorship Technology, Secure Mobile Communications, Digital Safety Training, Virtual Open Internet Centers, Emergency Funding, Internet Public Policy or Building the Technology Capacity of Digital Activists and Civil Society in Hostile Internet Environments in the Near East.

This covers anything from producing tools to circumvent the ‘Great Firewall’ to providing protection for individuals under threat for their online activism to providing secure communications for activists.

Interested parties should apply through the State Department website before February 7th with their proposals, and the State Deparment should announce the grant recipients in a few months.

There’s a stranger side to this program, though. Lost on the State Department, it appears, is the irony that the US government is considering its own internet censorship programs at the same time.

For those of you paying attention, the US has endorsed internet filtering at home and in Western Europe, but of course for only “illegal material.” That doesn’t even include the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which forces all universities receiving federal funds to use technological means to counter piracy; in other words, censor all student traffic.

Of course, when they say “illegal material,” what they really claim to mean is piracy, but there is little difference between the US attempting to ban your download of Firefly and the Chinese government trying to prevent your search of materials on the Falun Gong. The material is just as “illegal” in both cases (actually more so in China, since infringement is not a criminal offense in the US).

Given the hypocrisy of the government’s position, the motives of the “Joint Request for Statements of Interest: Internet Freedom Programs” are dubious. While it certainly would be a good thing to provide tools for evading censorship and filters, the fact that applications can only be targeted at countries the US considers to be cyber-threats is telling.

Given recent government conduct regarding Wikileaks, it is hard to interpret this program as anything other than an outright call for government-funded cyber-attacks on the enemies of the US camouflaged as a call for greater internet freedom.

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