Why the US Government Is Investing Millions in Internet Freedom Technologies

In post-Snowden era, the US tries more of the same.

Sep 29 2015, 1:30pm

Image: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

In a famous speech in early 2010, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out the US government's ambitious, albeit nebulous plan to free the internet of censorship and promote human rights online. Part of the plan was to fund anti-censorship technologies directly aimed at helping activists and netizens inside countries such as Iran and China.

Half a decade later, and without much fanfare, the State Department is doubling down on its plan, with a $10 million investment into a new initiative called Leading Internet Freedom Technology (LIFT). Despite the new name, the plan is basically more of the same.

"Based on a venture capital model, LIFT will foster, we hope, innovative next-generation technologies to circumvent internet censorship," Samantha Power, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, said.

"Every time censors try a new technique, the tool developers adapt."

This new initiative was announced on Saturday morning in Manhattan, at a US State Department-sponsored event, where a series of technologists and activists showcased various initiatives to circumvent censorship, such as the peer to peer proxy Lantern, or a free and open source anti-denial of service attacks tool called Deflect.

Tom Malinoswki, the State Department's top official on human rights, kicked off the gathering by turning around and lifting his smartphone to take a selfie with the crowd during his opening speech. The selfie was a jovial way to start an optimism-filled event, where government officials and activists alike reiterated that new apps and technologies are the best way to liberate the internet's oppressed.

"Every time censors try a new technique, the tool developers adapt, keeping thousand of users connected to the global internet," Malinowski said.

US ambassador Power echoed his words, declaring that there's no way to stop freedom online, and any effort to do so will fail just like all previous efforts to stop other technologies enhancing freedom of speech.

"The architecture of the internet is broader, flatter, and more efficient than anything that has come before it," she said, adding that repressive governments are aware of that, and know that the odds are not in their favor.

"The internet is more repressive overall than it was five years ago."

For Jillian York, the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, however, the focus of the new initiative is wrong, given that censorship globally "is largely dwindling," and countries are more focused on surveillance and going after dissidents "for speech after the fact."

"Circumvention is a band-aid," she told Motherboard via Twitter direct message. "While I'm not in favor of government funding for Internet freedom, I'd still rather see it put to better use, or see diplomacy efforts to push countries toward a more open internet."

But Ian Schuler, who worked as senior director of Internet freedom programs at the State Department between 2011 and 2013, thinks that since its launch the initiative has been successful—even if he himself admits that today "the internet is more repressive overall than it was five years ago."

"It would be a lot worse" without the State Department efforts, according to Schuler. For example, he added, WhatsApp probably would not be using the end-to-end encryption technology created by Open Whisper Systems, if the non-profit developer had not been, in part, funded by the Open Tech Fund, a program of Radio Free Asia, a private non-profit that is funded by a grant from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a government agency.

Alec Ross, the former State Department's tech guru and a close advisor of Clinton at the time, said that the internet freedom agenda has always had a varied focus, not just on censorship but also on encrypted secure communications.

"Go forth and circumvent."

"Samantha Power is not going to come out and say 'announcement everybody, we got an anti-surveillance tool that we're funding'—that's neither the language nor the intent of this funding," Ross told Motherboard on the phone. "But if you look at some of the things that they funded in the past, then obviously a lot of it is about providing secure communications for people in authoritarian countries."

Indeed, the Open Tech Fund has given funds to several projects that are not just about censorship circumvention, such as encrypted chat app Cryptocat, and email encryption tool Mailvelope.

With its latest fund, however, it seems clear that the State Department is primarily committing to fighting, and circumventing, censorship. Indeed, after Powers' speech, at the end of the event, Malinowski closed with a clear call for action.

"Go forth and circumvent," he said.

Correction: a previous version of this article stated that Open Whisper Systems was funded through the Open Tech Fund by State Department money. It was actually funded by Radio Free Asia, which is itself funded by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, not the State Department.

A previous version of this article also said Hillary Clinton's first speech on internet freedom was in early 2011, while it was actually in early 2010.