By Elijah Brown
There is an opportunity to stand with thousands of human rights activists and persecuted religious minorities in a way that could literally change the world.
4.9 billion people live in countries where either complete or partial restrictions on the Internet exist. According to the most recent Freedom on the Net report by Freedom House, there is no Internet freedom in 14 countries and only partial freedom in another 29.
Due to population density, 70 percent of the world’s population currently lives in contexts where there are active restrictions on Internet freedom and where governments utilize technology as a means to suppress the development of human rights, religion and the exchange of ideas.
As Sanja Kelly of Freedom House writes: “Restrictions on internet freedom continue to expand across a wide range of countries. Over the past year, the global number of censored websites has increased, while Internet users in various countries have been arrested, tortured and killed over the information they posted online.”
The most commonly utilized means of Internet control include blocking and filtering political and social content, cyber-attacks against regime critics, vague and restrictive legislation open to abuse, paid pro-government commentators, surveillance, blocking social media and communication apps, deliberately throttling Internet and mobile access, and physical attacks in retaliation for the exposure of human rights abuses.
Several examples are illustrative.
On Wednesday, Oct. 15, in Reynosa, a Mexican town less than 10 miles from the United States, a physician better known by her Twitter handle @Miut3 was kidnapped and murdered for her citizen journalism exposing ongoing regional cartel violence. On Thursday, Oct. 16, her killers announced her murder by posting a picture of her dead body on her own Twitter account. According to the Knight Center based at the University of Texas in Austin, in 2013 there were 330 documented attacks on journalists with 59 percent of the assaults “at the hands of a public servant.”
On Oct. 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced measures to tighten government control of the Internet, a pledge that “provoked widespread alarm in a country where social media and online news sites are crucial outlets for the political opposition.” This is in addition to already established protocols such as an ability by the government to block blacklisted Internet sites without a court ruling.
Egyptian civil society groups fear that their “margin of freedom is disappearing and that they are on their way to being silenced” by a regime increasingly targeting all government critics and known to simply shut off the Internet. In Iran, millions of Internet sites are blocked by the government and “journalists, bloggers and other netizens are often prosecuted for publishing or managing online content viewed as ‘propagating against’ the Government.” The Washington Post recently opined, “in the battle over information between the Islamic State and journalists, the terrorists are winning.” Foreign Policy noted, “Non-state actors are increasingly inflicting more damage in the digital realm. Both IS and al Qaeda are skilled with social media and learning new technology; cyber-terrorism could be next on their list. And yet Congress is failing to address this problem.”
In Hong Kong residents “have poured into the streets” and yet “news articles, social media posts and images about Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests are being heavily censored behind China’s notorious firewall.” Chinese authorities view social media as a threat and in recent weeks disrupted Instagram as a means of limiting the ability of protestors to organize and report their activities.
Randel Everett, president of the Wilberforce Initiative, recently called the circumvention of Internet firewalls in repressive countries the 21st-century Berlin Wall.
The technology to bring Internet access to hundreds of thousands of human rights and pro-democracy activists as well as to persecuted religious minorities already exists. This technology would allow, as an example, for half a million Chinese to participate in a single worship service that avoids government censorship and is accessible via cell phones. Unfortunately the implementation of this technology is being delayed by U.S. government bureaucracy.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is the federal agency responsible for implementation. Their recently revised mission statement reads, “To inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” With a 2014 fiscal year of $731 million, the BBG allocated 60 percent of its budget to shortwave radio and less than 2 percent for Internet broadcasts.
Congresswoman Kay Granger from Fort Worth, Texas, the current chair of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, recently utilized a manager’s amendment requiring the BBG to reallocate an additional 1 percent of its budget and no less than $25.5 million of its current $731 million budget for a “breakthrough competition” that would create dedicated servers and IP addresses that could be utilized in censored and restricted Internet access countries by human rights activists.
After reviewing the requirement to host such a breakthrough competition the BBG concluded: “[There is] enough system capacity to support up to 500,000 simultaneous streaming with strong encryption. This will also [make] the IP pool big enough, diversified enough and dynamic enough to defeat the potential targeted blocking efforts by any government, even if they spend billions of dollars and hire tens of thousands of people.”
In April 2014 the BBG stated its belief that sufficient technology existed “to deliver entire websites via satellite distribution to address populations whose countries have completely shut off access to the Internet.”
Even though the BBG has money uniquely allocated to a project that would empower human rights and persecuted minorities around the world and even though the BBG itself has claimed that this project would be effective, the BBG has yet to call for a breakthrough competition as required by the manager’s amendment.
This undertaking would undermine dictatorial governments and further justice, human rights and democracy but is stuck in government limbo. The following are three practical steps to stand with repressed minorities and human rights activists:
• Contact Congresswoman Kay Granger and thank her for being a proactive and powerful advocate championing this cause. Ask her to continue her efforts of due diligence in holding the BBG accountable to implementing her manager’s amendment attached to the 2014 fiscal year budget before Congress recesses.
• Contact Secretary of State John Kerry, who is an ex-officio member of the board of the BBG, and contact Congresswoman Nita Lowey, Senator Lindsey Graham, and Senator Patrick Leahy, whose positions on appropriations committees task them with accountability oversight of the BBG.
• Contact the BBG and urge the agency to immediately begin an initiative that would allow for the circumvention of Internet censorship as required by Congresswoman Granger manager’s amendment.
This is a commonsense policy that will not increase any government spending and will immediately empower hundreds of thousands of human rights activists around the world, help undermine systems of injustice, encourage Christians and other persecuted religious minorities, and further causes of democracy in the midst of challenging circumstances in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.