A recent internal test by a federally-funded broadcaster shows that the U.S. government has the power to bypass foreign Internet censors by feeding news over a special e-mail system. How that capability might affect events in Egypt, where leaders have cut off Internet services despite appeals by the Obama administration to restore them, remains unclear.
Between March and June 2010, the Broadcasting Board of Governors successfully used the tool in China to transmit news feeds from broadcasters Voice of America, CKXX and China Weekly, according to a report the nonprofit website GovernmentAttic.org obtained this month through a Freedom of Information Act request. The experiment offers a glimpse into the secret measures the State Department and U.S. broadcasters have taken -- and may currently be taking -- to enable the free flow of information when oppressive regimes cut off Internet access.
The report reveals that an "anti-censorship team" at the board's technology services and innovation office performed tests on the so-called FOE, or "feed over e-mail," system in Washington; Shenzhen, China; Beijing and Hong Kong. GovernmentAttic.org, which regularly publishes federal documents obtained through FOIA, requested the test findings in November.
In the past, the federal government has worked with software provider Tor, which distributes free software for establishing substitute, or "proxy," networks that allow users to remain anonymous when oppressors disrupt Internet service. More recently, the board began conducting market research to find vendors that can distribute text message alerts from broadcasters inside closed societies.
"FOE is not a proxy solution but it succeeded in what it intended to do," the team members wrote. "Once set up, it worked automatically without user intervention."
The main goals of the technology are to provide audiences with the latest news and to complement existing anticensorship tools, such as proxy networks, according to the board, which operates Voice of America and several other federally-backed broadcasters that deliver uncensored news to 21 countries, including Egypt, Iran, Burma and Cuba.
FOE uses e-mail to transport news feeds, regular computer files and proxy Internet addresses to recipients.
"For example, FOE can push new proxy addresses to users so they can browse the uncensored Internet via one of our web-based proxy servers," the report states. "Users can also use FOE to download [anti-censorship] software applications such as Tor, Freegate or Ultrasurf."
The messages are compressed and coded in a format that prevents typical keyword filters from blocking content. The safest way for people to read the data is to use e-mail accounts based in outside countries, such as Google's Gmail service, the team members wrote.
But "while FOE performed well in all tests, it is unclear how well the technology will work when it opens to the public," the members noted.
To squelch the opposition movement fighting to end Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, the nation's government reportedly has turned off Web and cell phone services and the Al Jazeera Network says Egypt has revoked its license to broadcast from inside the country.
In public remarks Friday night after a conversation with Mubarak, Obama said, "I also call upon the Egyptian government to reverse the actions that they've taken to interfere with access to the Internet, to cell phone service and to social networks that do so much to connect people in the 21st century."
The U.S. broadcasting service's test equipment included a Lenovo T400 notebook with Microsoft's Windows 7 Ultimate operating system; Sony notebook with Windows XP Professional and Dell desktop with Windows XP Professional. The transmissions were sent over China Telecom's residential broadband service at a WiFi spot in a shopping mall; Chinanet; and Hong Kong's City Telecom.
Board Chairman Walter Isaacson said in a statement on Friday, "I have been regularly updated on developments across the Middle East by our Arabic-language broadcasters Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa. . .[both] are important media players in the Middle East during these tumultuous days, contributing to international broadcasting in significant ways, utilizing all means of communications available."
But for Fern Krauss, an American stuck on a docked ship in Egypt after a three-day cruise, the television news has not been reliable enough. She has mainly relied on her cell phone, which still has reception from Vodafone, to get information from friends and family in the United States.
Krauss, who owns a public relations firm that represents many federal contractors, said on Monday morning that she is able to watch BBC and CNN via satellite on the ship. Krauss is seeking refuge there until flying out of Luxor International Airport on Tuesday.
"Since things are coming out in bits and pieces, I don't know really what to believe," she said after hearing reports that looters were stealing King Tut's treasures. "The one technology that would be the most helpful of course would be the Internet, which they shut down."