The cash-strapped BBC World Service has a new patron: The United States State Department. The State Department has made an informal arrangement to send hundreds of thousands of dollars to the BBC in order to develop high-tech anti-jamming tools for television and internet services. It appears the money is being spent to help the BBC World Service circumvent China’s “Great Firewall.”
At the moment, the BBC World Service is being jammed in China, Libya, Iran and a host of other nations. While the amount of money–described by The Guardian as a “low six-figure sum” (in British pounds?)–might sound small, the BBC World Service is currently in financial shambles following austerity measures and defunding. Fast Company has previously reported on how the BBC was forced to cut Arabic-language services in the midst of the Egyptian revolution by budgetary concerns.
The State Department will be sending the money from Washington to London to pay for multiple high-tech anti-jamming services.
Although statement could not be obtained from the BBC as of press time, a little digging indicates that much of the new anti-jamming package appears to be aimed at China. On March 9, BBC Global News director Peter Horrocks told Parliament:
We are investing, and will shortly be making announcements about, new circumvention technology that helps users on the internet to get round some of the blocks put in the so-called great firewall of China. We have received funding–interestingly, from the US Government, rather than from the UK Government–in relation to researching that. Our technologists are developing techniques that will at least help those who seek out our content online.
The BBC is expected to make a formal announcement on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.
Software currently used by the BBC World Service to detect hostile governments around the world blocking their websites will be significantly upgraded. The new programs will have far more sensitive–and far more frequently updated–information on user metrics that will aggregate drastic drops in service country-by-country, something that has been a bit of a weak spot for them in the past. According to The Guardian‘s Ben Dowell, the BBC World Service is currently forced to rely on reports from foreign users in order to find out about government blockages–their metrics dashboard apparently does not have the capability right now.
Additional funding will help pay for a network of proxy servers in undisclosed foreign countries that will allow citizens living under repressive regimes to access BBC websites. Although Iran has regularly blocked access to the BBC Persian website in the past, China is the best-known practitioner of internet-addressed based censorship.
Most interestingly, part of the sum will also be dedicated to implementing specialized anti-television and radio jamming services for the BBC. While the BBC has not been forthcoming on the technologies they’ll use to beam television signals onto sets located in hostile regimes, it’s safe to make some educated guesses about how they will do it. Jamming of terrestrial and satellite television signals, along with radio signals, can be defeated with complicated antenna and software-based solutions.
Other funds will be dedicated to a propaganda campaign centered around educating BBC World Service users on the basics of using proxy servers and how to educate non-computer savvy listeners on the basics of accessing the Beeb via computer workarounds.
While the idea of the United States government funding a British government radio station may seem to reek of a conflict of interest or of the BBC colluding with American aims, the decision is not surprising by any means.
Industry analyst Kim Andrew Elliott has noticed that USAID has been sending the BBC World Service Trust funds in order to help Nigerian radio stations replace “dilapidated equipment” back in February. USAID is a government agency providing economy and humanitarian assistance around the world. This means that USAID was, essentially, funding British public diplomacy.
The BBC World Service’s recent budget cuts mean that finding new funding solutions have been a priority for the news agency. But for the British, having the American government fund technological innovation at a beloved (and partially publicly funded) institution may open a Pandora’s Box of future issues.