US To Make Social Media Harder To Block

Days after Facebook and Twitter added fuel to a revolt in Egypt, the Obama administration plans to announce a new policy on Internet freedom, designed to help people get around barriers in cyberspace while making it harder for autocratic governments to use the same technology to repress dissent.

The State Department’s policy has been bogged down by debates over whether to view the Internet primarily as a weapon to topple repressive regimes or as a tool that autocrats can use to root out and crush dissent.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is scheduled to lay out the policy in a speech today, acknowledged the Internet’s dual role in an address a year ago, and administration officials said she would touch on that theme again, noting how social networks were used by both protesters and governments in the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries.

The State Department plans to finance programs like circumvention services, which enable users to evade Internet firewalls, and training for human rights workers on how to secure their e-mail from surveillance or wipe incriminating data from cellphones if they are detained by the police.

Administration officials say that the emphasis on a broad array of projects — hotly disputed by some technology experts and human rights activists — reflects their view that technology can be a force that leads to democratic change, but is not a “magic bullet” that brings down repressive regimes.

In the long months the government has wrestled with these issues, critics said, the Iranian government was able to keep censoring the Internet, helping it muffle the protests that followed its disputed presidential election in 2009.

Among the kinds of things that excite officials are “circuit riders,” experts who tour Internet cafes in Myanmar teaching people how to set up secure e-mail accounts, and new ways of dealing with denial-of-service attacks.

Michael J. Horowitz, a a lobbyist for the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, said that the day before the Egyptian government cut off access to the Internet, there were more than 7.8 million page views by Egyptians on UltraSurf, one of two consumer services under the umbrella of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. That was a huge increase from only 76,000 five days earlier.

The trouble, Mr. Horowitz said, is that UltraSurf and its sister service, Freegate, do not have enough capacity to handle sudden spikes in usage during political crises. That causes the speed to slow to a crawl, which discourages users. The companies need tens of millions of dollars to install an adequate network, he said. Under a previous government grant, the group received $1.5 million.

But the experience in Egypt points up the limits of circumvention. By shutting down the entire Internet, the authorities were able to make such systems moot. Administration officials point out that circumvention is also of little value in countries like Russia, which does not block the Internet but dispatches the police to pursue bloggers, or in Myanmar, which has sophisticated ways to monitor e-mail accounts.

Complete article via New York Times

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