The State Department might not be very happy about WikiLeaks (and its publication of hundreds of thousands of confidential diplomatic communications), but that’s not making it put the brakes on its quest to foster Internet freedom around the world. Foggy Bottom has just asked to hear from organizations that are interested in receiving government funds to “foster freedom of expression and the free flow of information on the Internet and other connection technologies.”
The agency has $30 million to spend on such programs and is planning on making grants to the tune of $500,000 to $8 million. The “Request for Statements of Interest” is specifically looking for projects and services that counter censorship and enable Internet users to get around firewalls and filters in “acutely hostile Internet environments”; provide secure mobile communications; train users in “digital safety”; and support “digital activists” and build the technology capacities of civil society organizations in the Middle East and Iran. It will also support Internet public policy work, emergency funding for netizens “under threat because of their web-based activism,” and centers that track censorship and online dialogue in those same “hostile Internet environments.”
About a year ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her landmark speech on “Internet Freedom and 21st Century Statecraft” in which she declared that the Internet’s ability to enable people to communicate freely was “a critical tool for advancing democracy.” As Clinton’s adviser on innovation Alec Ross later told reporters, “We’re elevating Internet freedom from a piece of sort of foreign policy arcana to something that’s more central to our statecraft and more central to what we are doing.”
The world first woke up to the impact of emerging Internet technologies on politics around the world during the Iran election in the summer of 2009. The State Department’s digital diplomacy efforts have received a lot of coverage in the past year, including a long piece in the New York Times Magazine about Ross and policy planner Jared Cohen (who has since moved to Google). (Fast Company has also written about it here and here.)
The government’s interest in fostering Internet openness abroad might sound hypocritical in light of the recent teeth-gnashing out of Washington over WikiLeaks. But there’s a subtle difference between what the U.S. is advocating and what it objects to about Julian Assange and his posse. The State Department is trying to make it possible for people elsewhere to enjoy the kinds of online liberties people in the U.S. and Europe take for granted: the abilities to express themselves, communicate with others, and post pictures and videos online, as well as organize with like-minded souls and advocate for policies and points of views they believe in. While the U.S. probably wouldn’t mind if net activists elsewhere pilfered confidential documents belonging to regimes in Iran or North Korea and posted them online, that’s not the core focus of Clinton’s Internet Freedom push.
Still, not everyone is enamored of the State Department’s mission. In the January/February 2011 issue of Foreign Policy, New America Foundation fellow Evgeny Morozov wrote an article subtitled “Why Washington’s support for online democracy is the worst thing ever to happen to the Internet.” Morozov, whose book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom coincidentally hit the shelves Tuesday, one day after the State Department’s request for statements of interest, writes that the State Department’s efforts have had little effect, and sometimes even backfired against net activists in repressive countries. “The State Department’s enthusiasm for technology has surpassed its understanding of it,” Morozov said.
Statements of Interest are due at the beginning of February. The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and its Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, which are jointly running the program, will then invite specific organizations to submit detailed proposals. The program says it will not consider projects that include support for “designated terrorist organizations.” Which means that WikiLeaks may or may not be eligible, depending on how things go in Washington.