US-funded programs to beat back online censorship are increasingly finding a ready audience in repressive countries, with more than 1 million people a day using online tools to get past extensive blocking programs and government surveillance.
But the popularity of those initiatives has become a liability.
Activists and nonprofit groups say their online circumvention tools, funded by the U.S. government, are being overwhelmed by demand and that there is not enough money to expand capacity. The result: online bottlenecks that have made the tools slow and often inaccessible to users in China, Iran and elsewhere, threatening to derail the Internet freedom agenda championed by the Obama administration.
"Every time we provide them with additional funding, those bottlenecks are alleviated for a time but again fill to capacity in a short period of time," said André Mendes, director of the Office of Technology, Services and Innovation at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which funds some of the initiatives. "One could reasonably state that more funding would translate into more traffic and, therefore, more accessibility from behind these firewalls."
The United States spends about $30 million a year on Internet freedom, in effect funding an asymmetric proxy war against governments that spend billions to regulate the flow of information. The programs have been backed by President Barack Obama, who promoted the initiatives at a town-hall-style meeting in Shanghai three years ago.
During his debate last week with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Obama briefly raised the topic of government surveillance in China, accusing the former Bain Capital chief executive of investing in firms that provide surveillance technology to China's government.
For his part, Romney has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for what he calls its failure to stand up to the authoritarian governments in China, Iran and other countries where Internet freedom is curtailed. The two candidates meet Monday for the third and final debate, this one focusing on foreign policy.
The U.S. government funds nonprofit groups and others to develop software that can be downloaded by users in other countries with pervasive censorship. The most widely used tools route Internet traffic through other countries, allowing users to bypass Internet firewalls as well as surveillance.
The task of keeping the Internet free, however, is becoming harder.
China's "Great Firewall" has grown more sophisticated in recent years, with the Communist government employing tens of thousands of monitors to filter content and watch users. Iran, meanwhile, has stepped up its already-substantial censorship efforts amid a mounting economic crisis, instituting new bans on overseas audio and video content and advancing plans for an Iran-only intranet.
The online crackdown is spurring calls from Internet freedom advocates for the Obama administration to step up its own efforts. Many have expressed frustration with what they perceive as slow progress advancing these tools.
"I can't imagine anything more cost-effective or strategic for the United States to do," said Michael Horowitz, former general counsel to the Office of Management and Budget in Ronald Reagan's administration and co-founder of the Twenty First Century Initiative, a group aiming to increase funding for Internet freedom.
"The one thing that's perfectly clear is people in closed-society regimes are the shrewdest people of all about being able to define their own interests and stay in power," he said. "And the Iranians and the Chinese are telling us, as clearly as they can, that their stability in power depends on purifying the Internet."
Horowitz said he wants the BBG — an independent agency that, along with the State Department, funds online circumvention tools — to increase its spending on Internet freedom from its current level of about $10 million of its $750 million annual budget, to between $50 million and $100 million.
Executives at the BBG said they are sympathetic to such appeals but suggest they are politically infeasible.
The "argument is if you gave $100 million, you could really be David and Goliath, could blow a big hole and knock the whole whack-a-mole of the Chinese censors down, and all the rest of the bad guys," said Michael P. Meehan, a member of the BBG. "I wouldn't disagree."
But, he said, the agency is already under pressure from Congress to find $50 million in budget cuts.
Meehan said his frustration is that countries such as China and Iran are clearly willing to spend exponentially more than the United States in what has become a cat-and-mouse chase.
"If we figure out how to breach the Chinese firewall with x dollars, they can spend a hundred times x dollars and divert their resources to figuring out how to plug that hole," he said. "If they're spending to shut one guy down, they'll create a vulnerability somewhere else in the wall for someone else. That's exactly how this battle's going to work."
The most widely used tool to avoid Internet censorship in China and beyond is known as Ultrasurf, but those behind the project say it no longer has the capacity to support demand.
On one day in September alone, for example, more than 770,000 people used the tool to avoid censors — more than half from China or Vietnam, according to data supplied by "Clint," one of the people running the project, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for the safety of relatives in China.
Ultrasurf's traffic spikes in different countries during times of political turmoil and crisis, as more users struggle to get access to independent information and news — but the tool also crashes when it gets overloaded.
As a result, Ultrasurf has already had to slow down Internet speeds to a crawl, Clint said, and prevent access to video content. Those behind the program have also developed a version for mobile phones — potentially significant given that millions of people in countries with censorship have phones but no computers — but they are unable to launch it because of funding constraints.
Privately, officials say the funding issues are caught up in concerns over politics and security.
Ultrasurf, for example, is backed by thousands of supporters of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that began in China, and restricts access to content critical of the religious group, making it more difficult for officials to press Congress for money.
Tor, a competing online program that also permits users to avoid detection, has become a useful tool for drug trafficking, child prostitution and other criminal activity. It's a problem that staff members at the Tor project acknowledge, but they say it is, in effect, a cost of doing business for an anti-surveillance tool.
"Criminals are early adopters of technology. As soon as the police learn to monitor one network, criminals find better ways to hide," said Karen Reilly, development director for the Tor project.
"We are being asked to make false choices between victims," Reilly said. "Because of someone who is being abused by a family member in the States, we are asked to shut down anonymity software, leaving the child who posts anti-regime comments on social media vulnerable in a country where rape in prison is officially sanctioned punishment."
Internet freedom activists say part of the challenge in developing online circumvention tools is determining how much to spend now on helping users evade detection vs. how much to spend on more sophisticated projects for the future that could keep pace with censorship technology.
Much of the latter is done under the auspices of Radio Free Asia, in a program led by Dan Meredith, a 30-year-old former journalist and programmer. But his program has only $3.7 million to spend in the year ahead — down from $6.7 million last year.
Meredith said that the firewall in China is "actually thin as cheese paper" — at least until censors find new ways to block information. What Meredith wants to do is keep the Internet free for new users — by building "mesh" networks, retooling major sites to automatically dodge crude censorship efforts and more.
But he acknowledges the political sensitivities involved in the effort.
"How do I go about trying to increase more awareness and funding from Congress for Internet freedom without going against some huge political body, or something?" he said.
For Horowitz, the veteran of the Reagan administration, the issue boils down to ideology. Internet freedom, in his view, is the 21st century's Cold War.
"We live in a world where walls of electrons are increasingly replacing stone and barbed wire as control mechanisms of dictatorships," he said.
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