Should the U.S. support Internet freedom through technology?

Perspectives on how the State Department could further Internet freedom.

The foreign policy priorities enumerated by the State Department, from Secretary of State Clinton to senior innovation advisor Alec J. Ross to case officers abroad, now include supporting Internet freedom around the world. As always with big ideas, the devil is in the details. “The issue for governments is that the same technology used for Internet freedom can be used for porn, copyright or terrorism,” said Andrew McLaughlin, deputy chief technology officer at the White House, at Privacy Camp in Washington, D.C. this spring. Implementation of Net freedom is where the opinion of researchers, academics and public intellectuals diverge.

Earlier today, Radar featured the perspective of Ross on integrating technology into State Department operations, including support for Internet freedom policy. After the jump, you’ll find several different perspectives on that policy, including some specific ideas for which technologies it might make sense to fund.

“Circumvention does nothing to help you access content that has been removed from the Internet completely,” wrote Rebecca MacKinnon in her analysis of global Internet freedom and the U.S. government. McKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices, a visiting fellow at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, has long been one of the most thoughtful analysts of Internet freedom policy. MacKinnon recommended developing three areas of technology in her testimony to Congress on Google, China and the Internet:

  • Anti-censorship tools, including outreach and education components for their use.
  • Anonymity and security tools that would help people to defend against cyber-attacks, spyware and surveillance.
  • Platforms and electronic networks that enable “the capture, storage, and redistribution of content that gets deleted from domestic social networking and publishing services.”

When Secretary Clinton pushed foreign powers to tear down this virtual wall in her speech on Internet freedom earlier this year, Clinton invoked YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as the “Samizdat of our day,” warning of an “information curtain” descending.

“We always end up with the Great Firewall of China and circumvention technologies,” said Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman in an interview with me this week. “That’s the wrong question. We need to move beyond circumvention to larger issues. This isn’t just about online conversations. We should think about technology to enable Samizdat.”

The methods by which those images, videos or news move beyond the boundaries of repressive governments are at the heart of the issue. “Using publicly-available networks has major issues for dissidents,” said Zuckerman. “The Neda video didn’t get posted to YouTube in Iran. It was emailed as an attachment.”

Zuckerman pointed to the potential of projects that take the Android operating system and adds anonymization technologies like the Tor project on top, or the use of Wi-Fi as an alternative to centralized radio towers. He enumerated the ways that piracy has been leveraged as a tool for information transfer, utilizing existing infrastructure to duplicate DVDs, though government officials might be hard-pressed to publicly support the endeavor. The author of the “Cute Cat Theory of web censorship also sees a place for Web 2.0 information-sharing networks, though improved filtering for keywords could degrade that channel.

That improvement is one of the most salient issues for the State Department as it evaluates connection technology. Tools for digital surveillance have become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, both within the United States and beyond, as tension grows over online censorship. IBM provided spam text detection software to China that may have a dual purpose. Nokia-Siemens has admitted to a role in providing technology to Iran.

Beyond the development of technology software by the Iranians, Zuckerman referenced the attacks on Vietnamese users focused on suppressing criticism of a Chinese bauxite mining operation. The incident, which involved hacking into a web server that hosted a keyboard driver, sent a fully-functional replacement driver to users that contained a keystroke logger. The controllers of the software could then spy on the users or use the compromised PCs in directed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.

That last issue is one of the areas Zuckerman does suggest development. Increasingly, governments or their agents can direct DDoS attacks against the websites of entities whose speech they wish to suppress. “The biggest problem we need to solve is securing mobile phones,” he said. “The best piece of advice I currently have is to watch ‘The Wire,’ where drug dealers in Baltimore use disposable cellphones to stay ahead of electronic surveillance.”

Whether such actions amount to cyberwarfare may be beside the point; most activists, NGOs or journalists are unable to keep their sites online. “We should be fixing GSM encryption, working on IPv6 and addressing the DDoS issue,” said Zuckerman. “Or developing a simple tech tool to wipe and purge a USB flash drive that’s been used to boot up onto a secure machine.” Update: Zuckerman emailed a clarification: “My concern is not that GSM encryption is insecure – it’s that the GSM standard has unique identifiers for the handset and SIM card, and that governments could track GSM users by recording the purchase of handsets or SIMs.”

The balance that the State Department will have to navigate in developing — and funding — such technology is the potential for them to be used in ways that are not in-line with its policy goals. This issue was debated at the recent Personal Democracy Forum in New York City, where Zuckerman joined Evgeny Morozov, Cheryl Contee, Ory Okolloh, and Micah Sifry on stage.

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The potential for social media and online platforms to be used as vehicles for great repression has been highlighted frequently by Morozov, both on his blog at Foreign Policy and in the Wall Street Journal, where he has written about digital dictatorship. “I don’t think that the State Department should be spending money on circumvention technology,” said Morozov, interviewed after the panel. “Given the domestic issues presented by U.S. surveillance, that policy reflects some hypocrisy. Hypothetically, the U.S. should be in support of Internet freedom. That doesn’t mean they should be funding it. Let Google do it.”

Morozov argued that focusing on connection technologies and the Internet is the wrong emphasis. “The issue are ones of foreign policy, not simply technical.” What are the goals of the State Department? “Do you want Hamas or Hezbollah to be able to connect?”

Cheryl Contee, a partner at San Francisco-based Fission Strategy, said that the State Department should be funding research and development. “Technologies that allow people to break their firewalls or allow people to encrypt are worth supporting, especially if we’re trying to preserve a method or protecting at-risk communities. Current sniffers aren’t working.”

While the panel at the Personal Democracy Forum disagreed on some of the core elements, one point of consensus is that good data to support specific policy is still hard to come by. “The sense I get is that we are still arguing too much from anecdotes,” said Micah Sifry, co-founder of PDF. “We don’t have a good taxonomy so that we know when the freedom of connection and expression that the Internet can bring acts as a catalyst. We also need to address the fact that in many cases it is not helping. The powers that be are using it to cement their position.”

The State Department is evaluating the best options for investment of tens of millions of dollars towards this area this year. Zuckerman pointed out that people have been building circumvention tools since the late 1990s. “The truth is that information, generally speaking, does not lead people to step up and overthrow corrupt governments,” he said. “The way the Internet really changes things in the long term is that it creates a new public space. It can be occupied by a fringe, but in closed societies, it’s not available any other way.”

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