An Open Letter to Congress About Internet Freedom

Mar 14

An Open Letter to Congress About Internet Freedom

Congress is considering reallocating funds earmarked for Internet freedom programs from the State Department to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), best known as the home of Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, and the Arabic-language Al Hurra Television. (For background, see Politico, March 9th)

We, the undersigned, represent individuals and organizations engaged in efforts to advance civil society and human rights.

As we have witnessed most dramatically in recent months, citizens around the world devote great effort and take substantial risks to promote and protect basic democratic tenets of freedom of speech, association and assembly. To that end, the Internet has created new opportunities in repressive environments by facilitating mobilization, public dialogue, and free expression.

We are deeply concerned that a reallocation of funds would diminish the United States’ ability to support these core values of Internet freedom.

Here is why:

1. Internet Freedom is Content-Blind.

While the Broadcasting Board of Governors oversees media programming exemplary of core American principles, its mission is narrowly focused on delivering content to target audiences. This is different from the much broader United States policy of promoting global Internet freedom, which will be weakened if it is conflated with an attempt by the United States to define the content made available to people in repressive regimes.

Citizens around the world use the Internet as a tool for the betterment of their societies. They use it to blog, tweet, upload photos and videos, and organize as much as they use it to receive content from the United States or elsewhere. Our organizations are committed to advancing Internet freedom because of our belief in the imperative of a free and open Internet. We are concerned that conflating the mandate of the BBG with the development of new venues and tools supporting the free flow of information endangers activists by exposing them to the charge of outside interference.

In short, to be effective, Internet freedom must be content- and message-blind.

Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, Michael Posner, at a recent symposium, framed the key issue well:

"We are…in a place where there is a great fascination and great potential created by new technology, the Internet, mobile phones, and a range of other new opportunities.  But again, in the framework of human rights, we need to take this public space for the 21st Century and make sure that it’s an open space, that it’s available to all, that it is both a way for people within a society to communicate and that we have a single platform that allows not only the debate about human rights and democracy political issues, but also as a place for innovation, for education, for development, and for trade…. This is not about devising content. It’s about creating a platform, an open platform, where information is exchanged on a whole range of levels for a whole range of purposes.” (Emphasis added)

2. Circumvention Is Not Enough

Successfully defending Internet freedom requires a broad and well-considered strategy that does not over-invest in one particular approach or technology, and takes into consideration that different situations require different strategies.

The present realities facing activists - or even ordinary concerned citizens - in repressive countries like Iran and China are complex. To have a lasting and effective impact on Internet freedom today, circumvention is not enough.

Circumvention tools are important in enabling citizens and activists to access websites and social networking services that have been blocked on their country’s networks. However, leading researchers, such as Ethan Zuckerman at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, have noted that the over-reliance on circumvention does not address the most pressing challenges that we saw in the Middle East, such as Internet shutdowns in Egypt and Libya.

There are many other challenges: Independent websites are falling victim to aggressive Denial of Service Attacks. NGO’s and investigative journalists face increasingly aggressive surveillance, including the installation of spyware on their computers and hacking of their e-mail and social networking accounts. Such realities require multi-pronged and flexible responses, involving a range of software, hardware, and training.

Thus, the BBG’s overemphasis on particular circumvention tools is not consistent with the demonstrated needs of on-the-ground activists. While circumvention technology remains one important tool for activists and ordinary citizens seeking information, earmarking a portion of these funds for the BBG preordains them inflexibly for one single tool when the threat model calls for a well-equipped toolbox. Circumvention must be complemented by investment in the training of activists, local policy reform efforts, a diverse set of tools, and far better securing of infrastructure.

3. Department of State’s DRL has the Expertise and Experience To Build Sophisticated Internet Freedom Programs

The State Department, and particularly the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), has taken significant interest in supporting technologies that enhance Internet freedom, and reached out to leading organizations in a collaborative and open approach. The State Department’s active participation in this community has helped build its significant institutional knowledge and a deep understanding of Internet freedom.

There is significant evidence that circumvention tools are most effective when applied in concert with other efforts. State is well positioned to coordinate technology, training, advocacy, and other efforts to keep the Internet free and open for pro-democracy activists. State is also in a position to quickly link existing efforts to emerging challenges and direct these resources to the digital activists who need them.

The State Department is currently evaluating inquiries for its third round of programming. A great amount of creativity and interest resulted in more than 60 applications. The community of organizations who do this work are able to execute projects worth many times the amount that State has available. These efforts must be supported by a funding agency that has comprehensive view of the problem and a commitment to best invest these resources in the most important needs, including issues such as: creating spaces for public dialogue, improving mobile phone security, protecting websites from censorship through hacking and attacks, training citizens and activists to be safe online, building capacity for local policy reform, responding to complete Internet shut-down, and providing emergency funding for quickly developing events.

While concern about delays in the disbursement of grants are warranted, we are more troubled that moving money from State Department at this point would disrupt the process greatly, resulting in a setback for Internet freedom efforts.

DRL has demonstrated the institutional capacity necessary to address these sophisticated issues in an effective and comprehensive way.

We urge Congress to continue to fund Internet freedom projects through the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) as the best, most strategic and most appropriate entity.


Leslie Harris, President/CEO, Center for Democracy & Technology

Cynthia M. Wong, Director, Global Internet Freedom Project, Center for Democracy & Technology

Christopher P. Csikszentmihályi, Director, MIT Center for Future Civic Media

Nathan Freitas. Guardian Project

Mahmood Enayat, Director, Iran Media Program, University of Pennsylvania

Katrin Verclas,

Rebecca Hurwitz,

Evgeny Morozov, Author, Net Delusion

Rebecca MacKinnon, Cofounder, Global Voices Online, Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow, New America Foundation

Ethan Zuckerman, Co-Founder, Global Voices Online, Senior Researcher, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University

Benjamin Peters, Fellow, Hebrew University/Yale Law School

Jillian C. York

Yosem E. Companys, PhD Candidate, Stanford University & Former National Adviser to General Wesley K. Clark

David Weinberger, Senior Researcher, Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Charles DeTar, MIT Center for Future Civic Media Fellow

Jing Wang, Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies, Comparative Media Studies, MIT

Nabiha Syed

Ed Webb, Assistant Professor of Political Science & International Studies, Dickinson College

Ian Wojtowicz, MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology

Paul Bernal, Lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law, University of East Anglia, UK

Gwen Hinze

Jessica Dheere, Social Media Exchange, Beirut

Mera Szendro Bok, Director, Communication Is Your Right!

Clay Shirky, New York University and Berkman Center for Internet and Society

Elham Gheytanchi, Associate Faculty, Sociolog, Santa Monica College

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