State to announce grants to support pro-democracy online activists abroad

The State Department will announce $28 million in new grants to support Internet activists working under repressive regimes, Bloomberg reports.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and some of her deputies have been advocating for fewer online restrictions as government crackdowns on Internet access have spread to 40 countries ranging from Tunisia and Egypt to China and Vietnam.

Software that helps pro-democracy activists avoid detection online has already been developed under the program and has spread rapidly through Iran and Syria, Dan Baer, deputy assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor, told Bloomberg. The department has trained more than 5,000 people around the globe to build and use firewall circumvention software through an "underground railroad" type system, he said.

Republicans in Congress, including Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., have criticized the program, trying to convince the administration to focus exclusively on ways to avoid firewalls rather than also teaching activists how to avoid detection. In a slate of cuts from the fiscal 2011 budget, the House cut the State department's budget for Internet freedom by one-third to $20 million and criticized the department for not spending last year's disbursement, $30 million, more quickly.