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Picking Net Freedom “Winners”: Congress Doesn’t Know What It Doesn’t Know

Yesterday’s front page story in the New York Times titled “U.S. Underwrites Internet Detour Around Censors” details the extraordinary work being done in little known back rooms and well known institutions–financed in part by the U.S. government–to develop new tools to support Internet freedom.  From the “Internet in a suitcase” project that uses mesh network technology to establishing stealth networks, to shadow cell phone networks, the article makes clear that what makes the Internet so powerful–its capacity for user-driven innovation at the edges–is creating a new zeitgeist to help defeat repression and defend global Internet freedom.
The story provides an ironic coda to the nasty political fight that consumed an inordinate amount of time and attention here in Washington over how to spend close to $30 million in Internet freedom funds at the Department of State. Without rehashing the whole sordid tale (Rebecca MacKinnon did a great job doing just that for those who crave the details), a Falun Gong-affiliated organization called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GILC) supported by a cast of lobbyists and conservative think tanks, launched a take no prisoners campaign to require all of the Internet freedom money be spent exclusively for the development of circumvention tools, including of course funding for GILC’s home grown tools which are aimed at circumventing China’s great firewall. The campaign produced angry editorials insisting that the answer to Internet Freedom was right in front of us in the form of anti-circumvention tools and angry Congressmen threatening to take the Internet freedom money away from the State Department altogether. For those of us on the Internet freedom battlefield, this simplistic approach to a highly complex problem was maddening.

As Cynthia Wong and I noted at the height of the hysteria, Internet freedom is not just about tools that circumvent censorship. It is about responding to surveillance and cyberattacks and Internet shutdowns that make circumvention tools irrelevant. As countries in the Middle East and North Africa move toward democracy, it is about standing up legal and policy regimes that support Internet openness, and freedom as countries move toward democracy. And as the New York Times story makes clear, it is about getting out of the way of technological innovation that can support democratic movements.

I assume that with all the sturm und drang, GILC will receive a considerable sum from the most recent round of Internet freedom grants. And that is fine. Circumvention has a role to play in securing Internet freedom. But it should give Congress and the media pause that while they were playing politics over a favored technology, real technological innovation was happening elsewhere. If there ever was evidence that Congress doesn’t know what it doesn’t know about technology innovation, it was there to see on the front page of the New York Times.