State allocates final $28 million for Internet freedom programs

Department official says a free Internet is key to democracy.

This week, the State Department will tell Congress that it has allocated all of the $50 million appropriated so far for Internet freedom efforts around the world.

With the Internet and social-media websites such as Facebook and Twitter often credited for helping to spark the popular revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, U.S. officials say they are stepping up efforts to keep the Internet open.

"There's no questions that the ability of young activists in Egypt or Tunisia to organize themselves was dependent on not sitting in a coffee shop or hotel somewhere, but using the Internet and having access to each other online," Michael Posner, assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights, and labor, said in an interview with National Journal. He said that a free and open Internet is one of the keys to a functional democracy.

Since 2008, the department has appropriated $50 million to help promote Internet freedom, with $22 million officially spent so far. A senior official with Posner's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor told National Journal that the agency will seek congressional approval this week for its plans to spend the final $28 million, while Congress earmarked another $20 million for Internet freedom in the latest continuing resolution to fund the government.

Although specific projects are rarely made public to prevent compromising the programs or the activists who use them, State Department officials said that their plans include grants to fund the development of technology designed to circumvent firewalls or other government censorship; apps to protect activists through encrypting texts messages, erasing contact information, or other measures; and technical training by third-party groups.

Using U.S. government funds, developers have designed and are testing a cell-phone "panic-button" app that would allow activists to send emergency messages with the push of a button if they are arrested or attacked. The State Department also says that its grants have provided training to more than 5,000 activists around the world.

Although Posner insists that his office is only interested in preserving an open Internet, not pushing an American agenda, some critics say that U.S. government support for Internet activists is inciting crackdowns in countries fearful of foreign meddling.

"When American diplomats call Facebook a tool of democracy promotion, it's safe to assume that the rest of the world believes that America is keen to exploit this tool to its fullest potential rather than just stare at it in awe," writes Evgeny Morozov, who takes on "the dark side of Internet freedom" in his book The Net Delusion.

Where Posner and Morozov agree, however, is that the Internet is simply a tool. People still have to act, and governments and corporations should work together to help them, Posner said.