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Internet Freedom? There’s No App for That

This weekend, the Washington Post published another editorial criticizing the State Department’s funding for Internet freedom programs.  The Post faults the State Department’s recently issued request for proposals as too broadly drawn, stating that the US government should focus on “proven solutions” like censorship circumvention tools.   

With this latest piece, it is clear the Post has decided to keep its blinders on.  Though developing circumvention tools remains critically important for many users, the broader work to be done will not be accomplished through the use of such tools in most places.  Nowhere is this more true than in Egypt:  the circumvention tools that the Post touts could not route around the kind of Internet blackout we witnessed last week. The plug was literally pulled on the Egyptian Internet and there is no app for that. 
While CDT takes no position on what particular groups or NGOs the government should or should not fund, the Post’s crabbed understanding of what constitutes Internet freedom simply underestimates the enormous amount of  work that lies ahead to get policies in place that promote Internet freedom.  
The Post’s stance is shortsighted in several ways.  First, Internet freedom is not just about circumventing censorship and blocking.  As groups like the OpenNet Initiative have documented, controls on dissent and expression online have become much more sophisticated and multifaceted, moving well beyond mere filtering.  Digital activists are engaged in an increasingly difficult battle against surveillance and cyberattacks online.  Independent media in many places are just now beginning to adopt new media tools that can help maximize their impact.  And traditional human rights groups are beginning to examine how new Internet laws adopted for seemingly unrelated purposes like copyright or child protection can have an enormous impact on free expression online.  
Second, Iran and China (and the US for that matter) are not the beginning and end of Internet freedom.  The free and open Internet that we have known in the Western world to date was the result of specific choices around Internet policy and technical architecture made largely in the US and the EU.  But the future of the Internet will be determined by the next five billion users who come online, and by the policy choices made by countries in the global south, beyond Iran and China.  Will India’s approach to national security in the digital age threaten privacy and user trust online?  Will Brazil’s approach to protecting children create private content gatekeepers that will undermine the openness of the network?  And will Thailand’s approach to online defamation chill expression in ways much more effective than technical filtering?  The answers to these questions will, cumulatively, determine what kind of Internet everyone will have access to moving forward.  
That said, it is right to ask the State Department to better articulate its strategy for how it will realize the vision set out by Secretary Clinton one year ago.  On our part, we believe that a single-minded focus on circumvention technology distracts from the very real need to build global constituencies – civil society, industry, and government – who understand the intersection between technology, Internet policy, and human rights, and to find collaborative strategies for promoting the kind of free and open Internet we all want.