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U.S. funding Internet censorship workarounds for repressive countries

[Photo: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson]

Hot on the heels that the United Nations now regards Internet access as a human right under freedom of expression, the New York Times reports that the U.S. State Department is helping to fund and develop methods to create shadow voice and digital communications networks that would enable citizens and dissidents to bypass repressive regimes’ control and censorship of communications media and reach out to the rest of the world directly. Some of the techniques involves are astonishingly low-tech, while others involve deploying sophisticated technology to create “shadow” communications networks in countries that bypass state-controlled media.

The United States government has increasingly been putting Internet freedoms at the forefront of its foreign policy platform. Other initiatives include a “panic button” application for use by activists and dissidents that wipes out a cell phone’s address book and sends an emergency signal to other activists.

Perhaps the most ambitious plan described in the report is a “suitcase Internet” idea, that involves setting up ad-hoc mesh networks—most likely in urbanized areas—using powerful base stations dressed up to look like ordinary boxes or suitcases. Scatter a bunch of them throughout an area, and suddenly there’s a communications service that’s independent of government control—and if authorities find or compromise some of the nodes, the network automatically adapts to overcome the losses.

Another initiative focuses on Bluetooth beaming: in some repressive regimes activists transfer information each other using discrete short-range Bluetooth connections. A new technology initiative is looking to use Bluetooth beaming so activists can flag data to automatically be transferred to other trusted users as soon as their devices come into range—no muss, no fuss, and no awkward fiddling with your phone while authorities are potentially watching.

Other initiatives are move conventional—although not necessarily inexpensive. In Afghanistan, for instance, the United States has apparently been building out its own cell phone network that is physically beyond control of the Taliban and (potentially) even the legitimate Afghan government. The idea is to create a cell phone network inside a country that is not controlled by the government, although—aside from embassy or consulate grounds—its hard to say where the U.S. might be able to built the necessary infrastructure.

The report also describes American diplomats meeting with a defector from North Korea who described a system wherein Chinese cell phones are buried near the North Korean border, enabling anyone in North Korea who knows how to find the phones to make outgoing calls through China.

The U.S. initiatives are trying to walk a fine line: on one hand, the Obama administration seems serious about promoting free speech and protecting human rights and freedom of expression on the Internet; on the other hand, some of the U.S.’s most strategic allies—like Saudi Arabia—are among the most active Internet censors in the world.

[Photo: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson]

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