Winning the Battle Over Internet Freedom

A Chinese woman uses MSN services on the Internet at a cyber cafe in Beijing Tuesday June 14, 2005. Chinese bloggers, even on foreign-sponsored sites, better chose their words carefully the censors are watching. Users of the MSN Spaces section of Microsoft Corp.'s new China-based Web portal get a scolding message each time they input words deemed taboo by the communist authorities such as democracy, freedom and human rights.(AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel)
Kelley Currie is a Fellow with the Project 2049 Institute, working on issues related to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the Asia-Pacific region.

In the Washington Post yesterday, Jackson Diehl had a column on the failure of the State Department to provide funding to something called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, a collection of providers of gizmos that can circumvent firewalls constructed on the Internet by repressive regimes. Diehl, an articulate commentator on the democracy agenda and democracy promotion, took the current and previous administrations to task for failing to deliver millions of dollars in funding that was earmarked for the State Department to spend on promoting global Internet freedom.

As was reported in May in the same paper, this is the latest volley in a long and sordid tale. In the past four years, Congress has given the State Department around $50 million dollars for efforts to promote global Internet freedom. The first earmark, $15 million in 2007, was obtained by the aforementioned Consortium through a concerted lobbying effort. To be clear: Without this lobbying effort on the part of the Consortium, there would have been no money for this purpose in that year's bill. Although the funding bill did not specify a "hard" earmark for the Consortium, the State Department was well aware of the legislative background of where the money came from but disregarded this intent and gave the money to other groups, which have so far spent it on a nice report (approximately $1.5 million to Freedom House), and, well, nothing ($13 million to Internews -- the journalist training organization Diehl alludes to but does not name in his editorial). As Diehl correctly notes, the Obama/Clinton State Department has done precious little with the remaining $35 million appropriated in subsequent years.

The whole thing is a mess, perpetrated by not one but two different administrations -- and I certainly share Diehl's frustration with the poverty of the State Department's efforts here. Interestingly, he treads quite lightly on one of the main reasons that the Global Internet Freedom Consortium continues to be denied and slow rolled funding under this initiative: its connection with the Falun Gong spiritual movement which the Chinese government has labeled "an evil cult." My experience suggests this fact played a larger role than he intimated in the State Department's decision not to fund the GIFC. But while Diehl's heart is in the right place in wanting State to get off the dime, and the GIFC has undoubtedly been badly treated, there are in fact good reasons these funds should be directed elsewhere - not that State seems to understand or be able to articulate them after four years of struggling with this effort.

For starters, the problem is more complicated than mere access. As most anyone who lives in China and uses the Internet there can tell you, circumvention technology is relatively cheap and widely available. The thing is, aside from expatriates and a relatively small coterie of scholars, dissidents, journalists and the like, who seek a less filtered online experience, the overwhelming majority of Chinese Internet users seem quite content with their circumscribed version of the Internet and neither use nor seek out such technologies.

For the aforementioned exceptions, as well as those who find the pornography and online gambling selections within the Great Firewall insufficient, virtual private networks or VPNs are all the rage. For everyone else, there are Chinese-language clones of Google, Facebook, Twitter and pretty much everything else, tailored to their needs to ensure that they don't feel they are missing out on anything.

Satisfied with Status Quo?

Within the bands of what is allowed by the Chinese government's complex, multi-layered censorship regime, there is a lively Chinese Internet experience that evinces a high degree of user satisfaction. The fact that the average Chinese user cannot access Facebook or various human rights NGO websites is largely meaningless for them simply because they are not trying nor do they have much desire to.

This is no accident, nor is it social commentary on the vapidity of the average Internet user. Rather, Internet users in China and other countries are carefully and inconspicuously given just enough online freedom to keep them from feeling constrained, while the content they are exposed to is subject to and shaped by layered and self-reinforcing controls that are mostly seamless and invisible.

For a better understanding how much more sophisticated and effective the Chinese government's Internet control regime has become, and how little it now relies on simple "blocking" to achieve this control, there are two recent scholarly pieces that deep dive into what makes this problem so difficult to crack and so damaging to overall efforts to promote human rights and democracy in these countries.