Politics & Policy

Untangling Dictators' Webs


Antigovernment protesters in Syria have a hard time reaching the outside world, since the government selectively blocks cell-phone coverage in protest areas, and most use a slow dial-up Internet connection. Some of them rely on a contact overseas. The Syrian, who has seen the inside of prisons before and asked that his name not be printed, receives video files from activists in Daraa. The Syrian helps format the videos and posts them to YouTube. He's exactly the kind of person the State Dept. would like to help right now: a pro-reform dissident, enabling others to get their story out through the Internet. But the Syrian is skeptical.

As the Administration struggles to keep up with the pace of change in the Arab world, the State Dept. is set to announce $28 million in grants for tools and training to help activists like the Syrian and his compatriots interact and organize online. The grants are a way to combat "repression 2.0," as Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State for the agency's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, puts it. Autocrats and their intelligence operatives are increasingly turning to social media and sophisticated technologies to track and infiltrate dissident groups. Before the fall of dictator Ben Ali, for instance, Tunisian authorities uploaded phony Facebook and Gmail login pages with the aim of stealing the passwords of activists. In the past, U.S. officials thought that if dissidents could simply get to Facebook, Twitter, and other unrestricted sites on the open Web, they could organize themselves. Posner now says that training activists to avoid traps and giving them the tools to stay safe in digital environments is "perhaps the most critical part" of countering online repression.

According to Posner, State has already held training sessions for 5,000 digital activists around the world, including one in February in Beirut that brought together participants from Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria. The sessions, quietly run by local organizations, teach participants which websites and technologies are most vulnerable to government monitoring—and which government-seeded rumors about technology are false. Daniel B. Baer, the deputy assistant secretary in the democracy bureau, says that in one country, the government spread rumors that police took screenshots of every computer every five minutes. Baer says State pays for travel to a safe place for the training and describes the program as "an underground railroad of trust."

The agency has already awarded about $22 million in Internet freedom grants and plans to raise the total to $50 million by the summer. The current round of grants will largely be dedicated to building the kind of digital tools activists need. To keep up with both activists and governments, the State Dept. will have to start acting more like a venture capitalist, says Posner, doling out seed money to developers.

Katrin Verclas runs MobileActive.org, a New York-based nonprofit. MobileActive has received State funding to build a "panic button" that allows activists, if arrested or pursued, to send a text message to a group of contacts in a way that doesn't show up on the phone's call log. The app also erases potentially incriminating data. MobileActive developed the tool to run on Java-enabled phones, such as BlackBerrys and the low-end Nokia phones that overseas activists are more likely to own. The group has made the code freely available and hopes to develop a community to sustain it. An Android version is in the works. "It's like having a baby," says Verclas, "you need to keep feeding it."

Not everyone is eager to take State's money, particularly when it's for on-the-ground training. The Syrian, for one, doubts that the money always makes it to the right people. He's seen foreign aid go to groups with no domestic credibility and seen other groups quietly take U.S. funding and then denounce America. Several other Internet activists reached by phone last week expressed similar sentiments. Hisham Almiraat, a Moroccan blogger based in France who asked to be identified by his pen name, traveled to a conference in Budapest in 2010 that was funded in part by the State Dept. He faced criticism online for attending. "Your credibility, your online reputation, becomes fundamental to your work," he says. "We cannot afford to be seen as agents."

Republicans claim that State has taken too long to disburse the $30 million that Congress gave to the project in 2010. It's especially galling, say some, in light of State's claim that it's trying to act as nimbly as a Silicon Valley company. In February, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) asked the Secretary of State to transfer $8 million to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which runs Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America and helps fund technology to circumvent fire walls. "Congress appropriated this money to us," says Posner. "The fact that we had 68 applicants for the money, the fact that those applicants have expressed a need for well over $170 million, is evidence of plenty of appetite and interest."

State has argued that the tools supported by the BBG bring people to U.S.-sponsored sites like the Persian Free Network, and that the overt U.S. link might hurt, not help, their cause. Republicans counter that taxpayers should get the satisfaction of knowing that the tools they're funding are routing activists to U.S.-approved sites. According to Mark Helmke, a senior adviser to Lugar, the decision to strip $10 million from State's Internet freedom budget in 2011 was driven in part by frustration over the slow pace and what the GOP saw as a lack of transparency. "We get information in dribs and drabs," he says.

There are other organizations that fund conferences, training sessions, and tools. Almiraat, the Moroccan, attended a 2009 conference in Beirut sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. At one point during the conference an Iraqi blogger interrupted a meeting to announce that he had breached the WiFi network and stolen the passwords of everyone in the room. The event instilled a healthy sense of paranoia in everyone involved, says Almiraat, who has derived his own rules for when and from whom to accept help. He'll let outside organizations pay for his travel and for the chance to meet activists from other countries. But he doesn't believe the State Dept. should be involved in formal training. "This is the diplomatic arm of the U.S. government," he explains. "They have an agenda. We don't need that in our work. We can train ourselves."

The bottom line: By summer, the State Dept. will have allocated $50 million to train overseas Web activists and build tools to help them speak freely.

Greeley-brendan-190
Greeley is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.
Gaouette is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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