Funding censor busting technologies

March 11, 2011

Alec Ross, senior adviser for innovation to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visited LSE last night to discuss the State Department’s implementation of “21st Century Statecraft”, a relatively new initiative to better integrate “innovation” (read: the internet, social media, etc.) into American foreign policy and examine policies concerning the same.  His lecture was concise and generally explained the principles they have adopted, strongly urged by Clinton’s own dedication to the subject.  I admire the entire department’s work and am thrilled the secretary has spent so much time talking about issues like internet freedom.

I asked Mr. Ross about the State Department’s funding of internet censor busting technologies given the secretary’s speech in February and the recent (rather idle) threat from some members of Congress to take it away.

In her first major speech on the subject last January, Secretary Clinton warned, “nations that censor the internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom” and subsequently backed that up with $30 million in grant funding provided by Congress.  The available grants, ranging from $500,000 to $8 million, have been slowly awarded to projects that enable activists and citizens around the world to circumvent censorship technologies like the Tor Project.  Training and education programs are also funded.

This week, it appeared that both parties in the US Senate proposed to remove that money from the State Department and transfer it to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent agency responsible for  Radio Free Europe - Radio Liberty, Voice of America and others.  Mr. Ross responded by suggesting that a faction of Republicans was upset the money hadn’t been spent quickly enough and were primarily interested in busting through China’s censors.  The State Department, he continued, is taking its time to fund the right projects and is mindful of censorship around the world while ensuring that education and training is a large part of the effort.

I don’t know enough of the politics on Capitol Hill today to know whether it is a Republican-led effort, but I do know that the Republican proposal, placed in their version of the continuing resolution, transfers $5 million less than the Democrat’s proposal.  Either way, I’ll side with the State Department on this one as Mr. Ross and his team are a competent group of progressive thinkers that actually understand how the internet works and what is needed to enable citizens around the world to use the power of the internet to advance their freedoms.

Secretary Clinton spoke about the importance of these grants in her second major speech on internet freedom:

In the last three years, we have awarded more than $20 million in competitive grants through an open process, including interagency evaluation by technical and policy experts to support a burgeoning group of technologists and activists working at the cutting edge of the fight against internet repression. This year, we will award more than $25 million in additional funding. We are taking a venture capital-style approach, supporting a portfolio of technologies, tools, and training, and adapting as more users shift to mobile devices.

We have our ear to the ground, talking to digital activists about where they need help, and our diversified approach means we’re able to adapt the range of threats that they face. We support multiple tools, so if repressive governments figure out how to target one, others are available. And we invest in the cutting edge because we know that repressive governments are constantly innovating their methods of oppression and we intend to stay ahead of them.

Photo: London School of Economics (via @lsepublicevents)