Internet freedom was a key focus in events surrounding World Press Freedom Day in Washington, D.C., this month. As over 2 billion people log on, and social media fuels democratic change in the Middle East, the internet becomes "the town square" of the 21st century, says Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner. At the same time, he says, "many governments have now decided that they want to silence their critics and they're using these new technologies against them."
The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which Assistant Secretary Posner heads, is promoting internet freedom in what he calls a "politically and technically dynamic" situation:
"The environment is changing, and it's sort of a cat and mouse game, where we're trying to stay one step ahead of the cat in making sure that these activists both have access, but they're also using these new technologies in a way that's safe and secure."
Diplomacy with the governments involved and diplomat training are part of the equation, says Assistant Secretary Posner. The State Department has spent twenty-two million dollars to date and, along with USAID is funding another twenty-eight million dollars in programs and technology. These include programs to train activists on the safest ways to use the internet and avoid detection.
"We've trained five thousand high risk users in all regions of the world, including the Middle East … New kinds of circumvention, technology to get around the firewalls. We've got about a dozen different entities developing that, as well as some technologies that protect people."
Ian Schuler, a program manager for internet technologies at the State Department, says funding is also going toward researching ways to help activists communicate when the internet is shut down altogether:
"Are there ways that people can still use the infrastructure that they have to be able to pass messages to each other? … All of these different tools, they're made to be able to talk, and they're made to be able to talk to each other: cell phones, and wireless routers and laptops that have WiFi cards, are all made to send information both ways. There are some tools out there already that allow them to connect to each other, even when the internet's shut down."
"Technology's advancing," says Assistant Secretary Posner. "We're trying to link technology and human rights."