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[liberationtech] An Open Letter to Congress - Refine and Sign

Katrin Verclas katrin at
Fri Mar 11 08:50:09 PST 2011

Here is the letter that a few of us collectively drafted. 

Two things to DO:

1. Refine it. It's still a draft.  Suggestions and changes welcome - email me. 
2. Sign it.  We are looking for signatories - we have about five or so organizations/individuals now.  Please add yourself if you support this letter by Monday morning - a private email to me is fine.

We will be sending this out mid-day Monday and are talking to press for a heads up. 

Here is the draft:

An Open Letter to Congress About Internet Freedom

Congress is currently debating whether to reallocate funding for Internet Freedom programs from State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, to the Broadcasting Board of Governors, best known as the home of Voice of America. (see Politico, March 9th,

This move would threaten the core values of Internet Freedom. 

We, the undersigned, represent the leading organizations engaged in efforts to advance Internet Freedom. Pro-democracy activists around the world devote great effort and take great risks to ensure that the Internet remains a vibrant tool for democratic expression, association, and free assembly; our organizations' role is to support these efforts. We are writing out of deep concern that Congress is currently considering transferring Internet Freedom funds to the Broadcasting Board of Governers.

Here is why:

1. Internet Freedom is Content-Blind. 

Access to, and use of, digital platforms must be viewed as an extension of universal human rights. These principles are the fundamentals of democratic practice: the right to free speech, the right to a free press, the right to assembly, and the right to association. 

Our organizations are committed to advancing Internet Freedom because of our belief in the imperative of a free and open internet. Likewise, democracy activists around the world regard the internet as a tool for the betterment of their societies. As such, Internet Freedom must be content- and message-blind. 

The Broadcasting Board of Governors oversees media programming exemplary of core American principles; however the United States should not define the content available to individuals in repressive regimes. 

Conflating the mandate of the BBG with Internet Freedom will jeopardize this work and that of the pro-democracy activists with whom we work.

The issues at stake are that of openness and effectiveness. 

Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, Michael Posner, at a recent symposium, framed the key issues well: 

"We a place  where there is a great fascination and great potential created by new  technology, the Internet, mobile phones, and a  range of other new  opportunities.  But again, in the framework of human  rights, we need to  take this public space for the 21st Century and make sure that it’s an open space, that it’s available to all, that it is both a way for people within a society to communicate and that we have a single platform that  allows not only the debate about human rights and democracy political issues, but also as a place for innovation, for education, for  development, and for trade.... This  is not about devising content. It’s about creating a platform, an open platform, where information is exchanged on a whole range of levels  for a whole range of purposes." (Emphasis added)

2. The BBG has Limited Expertise and Too Narrow a Focus

The Broadcasting Board of Governors has an intimate relationship with certain organizations whose priorities differ from those of the American government. There is widespread concern within the Internet Freedom community that these entites are likely to exercise an undue influence over the decision making process, leading to inefficient funding of the wrong projects. Furthermore, it must be the concern of the United States Congress that the decisions made by the BBG have a strong potential to lead to undesirable outcomes foreign policy outcomes.

Successfully defending Internet Freedom requires a broad and well-considered strategy that does not overinvest in one particular approach or technology, and  that takes into consideration that different situations require different  strategies. The BBG's overemphasis on a particular circumvention tool demonstrates how out-of-touch they are with the real needs in this space. Repressive regimes have become increasingly sophisticated in the ways that they track, block, and harrass internet users. A leading academics in this area have noted [ethanz link], over-reliance on circumvention does not address the most pressing challenges, and will lose the war for internet freedom.

Internet Freedom is not a simple arms race, as advocated by some of the lobbyists recently. This is not Internet Freedom 1.0 - an idea that may have worked during Cold War but is now outdated. Present realities are more complicated than these lobbyists led Congress to believe.  To have an impact on on Internet Freedom today, we need to move beyond outdated concepts.  The BBG has not shown that it understands this reality. 

Additionally, addressing Internet Freedom effectively requires adaptability.  BBG’s tools and approach are irrelevant to the sort of challenges we saw in the Middle East, such as Internet shutdowns in Egypt and Libya. Earmarking a portion of these funds for BBG preordains them for something that will not be appropriate in six months. State’s programming is responsive in real time to the complex and changing landscape of threats to Internet freedom.

While anti-censorship circumvention technology is one strongly visible component of ensure the protection of human rights, it must be complemented by long-term investment in the training of activists and far better securing of infrastructure. 

Circumvention, for example, does not secure against common attacks on internet freedom like DDoS  attacks that effectively remove everyone's ability to view a site or even more common tactics of authoritarian governments shutting down the  Internet entirely or, alternatively, injecting pro-government  propaganda on sites otherwise used for resistance.  

There is significant evidence that circumvention and organizational tools are most effective when applied in concert with other efforts. Building the relationships necessary for design tools and programs appropriate to on-the-ground the ground circumstances is a costly and time consuming effort. As the primary vehicle for government funding of pro-democracy and civil society programs, the State Department is the institution most capable of coordinating efforts.

Considering the importance of these funds and the gravity of the consequences, the decision made must strictly conform to the Congress and President's international priorities. It is therefore necessary to question the relationships and position of any proposed arbitrar of American funds.

3. Department of State's DRL has the Expertise and Experience To Build Sophisticated Internet Freedom Programs 

The State Department has taken significant interest in liberation technologies and reached our to the leading organizations in this community in a collabrative and open approach. This has created a sizable and obvious institutional knowledge that has not been paralleled by BBG. We have never seen anyone from the BBG add credibly to this work with any visible expertise.

As a result, State can better leverage these  resources to meet emerging needs of activists that State and USAID already know and support as part of media and democracy-building projects.

Additionally, Internet Freedom requires a coordinated approach. State has the right mandate and expertise to lead this.

For instance, the State Department is currently evaluating inquiries for its next round or programming. During the current round of solicitations, a great amount of creativity and interest was expressed by leading experts and organizations, and the DOS is considering a wide field of innovative approaches to addressing emerging challenges to Internet Freedom. 

Specifically, State has already received more than 50 applications to its recent call for statements of  interest from top organizations working on internet freedom. The community of organizations doing this work are planning projects many times the amount that State has available. These projects needs to be supported by a funding agency that has the wherewithal to meet a comprehensive and smart set of  objectives that focus on issues such as: Mobile security, support against attacks, Digital Safety Training, responses to complete Internet shut-down and Emergency funding for quickly developing events. 

While concern about delays in the process are warrented, we are MORE concerned  that moving money from DOS at this point would disrupt this process  greatly and would be a great set back for Internet Freedom efforts. 

DRL has the institutional capacity for addressing these sophisticated issues.  

We call into question the appropriateness of the involvement of the BBG in funding and think this is short-sighted and counterproductive.

We urge Congress to contine to fund Internet Freedom projects through the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) as the best, most strategic and most appropriate entity.


Add your name here 

Katrin Verclas
katrin at

skype/twitter: katrinskaya
(347) 281-7191

A global network of people using mobile technology for social impact

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