Obama Administration to Unveil New Policy on Internet Freedom
Web-fueled protests in the Middle East.
The policy has reportedly been in the works for about a year, but recent events in Tunisia and Egypt have added a new sense of urgency to the issue as the U.S. struggles to balance old alliances in the Middle East with a new wave of reform-driven upheaval. According to the New York Times, the State Department's plan calls for the financing of circumvention programs to help users maneuver around firewalls, and for human rights workers to be trained in how to keep their e-mails and cell phone data safely hidden from government surveillance.
The State Department says the new policy is designed to help political dissidents circumvent digital barriers and elude the monitoring of repressive regimes. Critics, however, say that the Department took far too long to put together a comprehensive policy, pointing out that the administration withheld $30 million of Congressional funding that could've gone toward circumvention programs much earlier. As the Department was busy deliberating over its policy, critics contend, the Iranian regime was able to continue censoring the Internet, thereby quelling the protests that rattled the country in 2009.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, says the new policies underscore its firm belief that technology can fuel democratic change, but acknowledges that a more open Internet won't necessarily be the "magic bullet" that some reformers are seeking. Circumvention programs, for example, may mean little if an autocratic regime suddenly decides to shut down the Internet as the Egyptian government recently did. "People are so enamored of the technology," said Michael H. Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. "People have a view that technology will make us free. No, people will make us free."